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By LUCINDA BETTS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2006 Lucinda Betts
All right reserved.
Chapter OneStill tangled in ribbons of dreams, my consciousness fought to focus. Surreal images rose to the surface. Powerful hands grabbing my wrist. A handsome face. A strange scent and muscular thighs. Were there ... sultans? Harems?
No. There weren't. Just dreams, I realized, breathing easier. Dream images.
I squinted my eyes toward the alarm clock, but seeing nothing, I gave up trying. Still too early.
I closed my eyes and snuggled back into my bed, sifting through the dream memories, trying to remember. I dreamed ... I'd been kidnapped. A Sultan wanted me, and a gorgeous mercenary had stolen me. How exotic.
I vaguely remembered a story I'd heard on NPR about a Romanian or Hungarian woman escaping after being kidnapped and used as a sex slave. Marquis de Sade's Justine had been kidnapped and did a stint in a basement with stinky monks. The kidnapped Romanian from the radio had been kept in a dingy hotel room filled with fat, bald men with bad breath.
The watery memory I had of my dream was much more glamorous. I hadn't been Romanian, and I hadn't been in a basement. There were billowing tents and silken cords and beautiful flowing genie pants.
With a little more ease, I opened my eyes and squinted at my clock. Retinas still not stretching, pupils still notdilating, I saw nothing. Still too early.
Closing my eyes, I sieved through my memories for more juicy tidbits. I clearly remembered checking into the Morgan, a four-star luxury hotel in Manhattan. I was going to stay for three days as part of a well-earned vacation.
I remembered a black-and-white marbled floor and cool art deco furnishings. A good-looking doorman bought me dewy pink tulips from the adjacent drugstore. At the time I thought the move was too polished, but I love tulips and was charmed nonetheless.
I dreamed I bought a coke at the bar, bypassing room service to check out the patrons. I'd found no one interesting and had taken the coke to my room.
But that part wasn't a dream. I really was on vacation. I really was at the Morgan.
What time was it?
Forcing my eyes to open and focus, I looked around me ... and blinked.
A sea of green silk billowed above me. The scent of hot dust filled the air. Was I in a tent? I turned my head. A big post stood in the center of the fluttering green silk. Was that flap opposite me a door?
I tried to focus on my surroundings, and became increasingly aware of a growing pressure in the back of my head. It hurt. A lot.
Closing my eyes felt like the right thing to do, and as I drifted into sleep, a rational part of my brain told me that the world would make more sense when I woke.
I hoped it was right.
* * *
Sleep lifted slowly from my eyes. From the soft comfort of my bed I admired the hues floating above me.
Sunlight filtered through the emerald-colored walls, filling the space with bright silhouettes of leaves, fingers of tree branches. A slight breeze lifted the fabric, billowing it with a soft whisper. Dappled colors surrounded me, beautiful underwater colors.
Then I realized. This was not the Morgan. I was in a tent!
My heart pounded like a crazed antelope leaping over the plains, and I tried to sit. I couldn't. Fighting panic, I realized-my hands were tied behind my back.
I opened my mouth to scream, but my brain warned against it. Don't tell anyone you're awake, it urged. I blinked again, acknowledging that it was right, this time.
Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath.
A deep melodic voice interrupted my meditation. "Good," he said, the tone slow, rich, seductive. Otherworldly. "You indicate some ability to control yourself. You show promise."
I tried to scream, but the sound refused to budge from my lungs. I fought the paralysis. And lost. I just ... couldn't scream. Panic pounded through my veins.
"The Sultan will be extremely pleased with your control," he said.
I tried again. My lungs worked! This time I did scream. So much for control. I screamed for help. I screamed for mercy. I screamed obscenities that weren't nearly as creative as I might have hoped given the situation. Finally, I screamed to a God I wasn't sure existed.
The result of my screaming didn't make me any more religious. No golden chariots appeared at my rescue. No sword-bearing angels came to avenge me. Instead, the implacable voice of the man standing in the doorway responded in an almost gentle fashion.
"Now is the time for screaming and lack of control," he said. "Scream all you like-today. No one can hear you except me. Mariah is deaf, and if she could hear, she would not help you." His sensual voice had a husky, mocking quality that sent a shiver down my spine.
Unearthly. Elegant. Did Pierce Brosnan have a younger brother with a habit of kidnapping women? My captor seemed vaguely familiar, like I'd met him in a dream. A feathered memory tickled the back of my mind. There was something ...
My captor approached me, almost floating in his gracefulness, and he moved to touch my head. Panic swelled, filling me with an overpowering desire to escape this tent. Now. Regardless of the guy's looks, I hadn't signed up for this, and nothing about the situation in which I found myself was consensual.
I pulled away from him wanting all of my strength, but as if in a dream, I was as weak as a child. In slow motion, I tugged my wrists, feeling like I struggled through a sea of molasses. I was so slow, so weak. What was wrong with me?
Drugs ... it must be drugs, whatever he'd used to steal me from the Morgan Hotel. Telazol? Ketamine? I could barely move, despite my will to run. My bonds held.
I shouted again, but it didn't sound like my voice. Kathleen Battle's voice fell from my lips, singing a passionate scene of anger and rage. Birds took wing from the branches above my tent.
"I would recommend that you cease shouting by nightfall. Why let the lions and hyenas know where you are?" His calm tone ridiculed me.
He touched my head again, despite my noisy writhings. His hand unnerved me, burning into my skin even through my hair.
He paused at the tent's flap and said, looking me in the eyes, "Mariah will be here shortly to see to your needs. When you calm yourself enough to think of escape, be aware that you are several hundred kilometers from the nearest town, and the people of that town do not speak English."
I'd been screaming and struggling through his brief soliloquy, and I was nearly frozen in panic. My mind absorbed only a few words: "lions," "several hundred kilometers," "no English." I'd also heard the word "escape." Until then, I hadn't accepted that my situation warranted escape.
Terror rose through my throat.
All parts of my brain agreed upon the next course of action: I cried. I cried until I fell asleep.
But even as sobs ripped themselves from my chest and sleep crept up on me, I realized that a man as good looking as my captor would not need to kidnap anyone, not for himself anyway.
With a few kind words, he'd have the attention of most women I knew. Maybe even me. Images of his dark hair coupled with fair skin, aqua-blue eyes and sharp features danced across my imagination. His easy competence was the sort that generated trust in people.
When he wasn't kidnapping women.
I slid into consciousness again. My mind fought to find the Morgan, but the old woman made it impossible. She silently sponged warm, fragrant water over me. Was the fragrance lavender?
I struggled violently to sit up in bed, yanking on my ties. My wrists and ankles burned under the cords, and my feet longed to run.
But the old woman held up a hand. Like magic, I stopped. Panic drained away, leaving dreamy lethargy in its place.
I stared at her a minute, wondering at the power in her hand. She looked like drawings of Baba Yaga from the fairy tales I'd read as a child, wizened and brown. Wrinkled raisin eyes peered from her sunken face.
I still felt fuzzy headed, like if I tried hard enough I could detach myself from my body and view myself from above. I thought I'd woken in a bed, but now I found myself tied to a chair, hard and unyielding.
Heat permeated the air and the mat-covered ground beneath my feet. The intense heat didn't feel like New York, and the dust didn't smell like Manhattan. My captor mentioned lions. Hadn't he?
Lions. I rolled the word around my consciousness. Lions.
Like leaves across a late-summer pond, the word floated through my mind.
Where did lions live? My mind's eye played pictures of big cats roiling over some dusty land.
But a country's name wasn't coming with the picture of the landscape. Someplace in Africa. They were gone in India, weren't they?
I'd watched enough nature shows to know the answer to this question. Rest would bring the answer.
Closing my eyes, I let the old woman do her job. Cool, fragrant water trickled over my brow. Her strong hands massaged warm oil into my calves, into my arms.
When she finished, she held a drink for me. Cool lemony water. So refreshing.
She untied my hands slowly, letting my wrists memorize the texture of the silky binds. After the tie slithered off, she held it up for me to see. Do not try to escape, her expression said. I am trusting you.
An aromatic stew appeared on the table near the door flap. It must have been there all along. The scent of fresh tomatoes and Indian herbs filled the tent. Naan bread appeared at its side. I ate it, and I enjoyed it.
The old woman was a witch. The lethargy she'd cast on me was something I couldn't swim past. My feet were bound, true, but escape no longer beckoned me.
Where would I go? Was I really in some exotic land miles-no, kilometers-from nowhere?
I finished the stew, using the bread to suck up every last morsel. The old woman-Mariah, I reminded myself-nodded in approval.
She knelt at my feet with a grace surprising in an old woman. With deliberate movements, with slow and exaggerated hands, she untied the silky cords binding my feet. She stood, and with the elegance of a movie star, she held the tent flap open, and gestured for me to leave my green nest.
Looking at the landscape, I felt like I'd been sucked into the television and delivered to Discovery-channel land. Dry savannah lay all around me. Thick baobab trees peppered the hills. A river trickled below us.
The air smelled amazing. Had I ever before smelled air free of exhaust? And the heat; it defied description. I'd never been to the Southwest. Could anywhere in the United States be this hot?
Mariah gently nudged me toward a small building. I realized it was a bathroom, an outhouse. I then realized that my clothing were not my own.
Someone had dressed me in a sunflower-colored dress. Finely woven cotton fit tightly across my breasts and stomach, loose and flowing around my legs. Ignoring the achingly blue sky and the strange scent of the dust, I quickly undid the buttons over my breasts and looked down.
My no-nonsense underwear were gone. Now, a leopard-print bra pushed my breasts high, made them look full and tempting. My pink nipples peeked out the top. A tiny triangle covered my pubis, also leopard print. Tiny black strings ran over my hips, up the back of my ass.
I stumbled into the outhouse in a cloud of yellow cotton. As I closed the door behind me, names of countries that had lions and that looked like this on television started to filter to the top of my brain-Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa.
Toto, I said to myself, we're not in Kansas anymore. But I guess Oz did have lions. If I found myself talking to a tin man, I'd have to question my sanity. The world felt strange-monkeys might fly across the cloudless blue sky.
When I came out of the outhouse, the panoramic view shocked me, took my breath away. I scanned the horizon seeing nothing unnatural, nothing made by human hand. A wide trickling river. Scrubby trees clinging to the shoreline. Huge boulders scattered over the landscape.
Not a house. Not a road. Not an electric pole in sight.
And Mariah was gone. But her witchy magic wasn't. I felt compelled to sit on a boulder. To sit and watch.
In bare feet, I climbed to the top of the big rock. A bright blue lizard with a peach-colored throat scampered away. A bottle-green snake gave me an apologetic look and slithered into the shade. Overhead, a bird of prey cried, sounding like my heart.
And then the old witch returned. With a crook of her gnarled index finger, Mariah indicated I should return to my tent. She wasn't a servant-she was Baba Yaga. Her chicken-legged home lurked just on the other side of one of these boulders. I knew it.
So when Baba Yaga called, I went willingly, filled with that strange lassitude.
I knew I couldn't escape on foot. Where were my shoes? I'd need a car-or a camel. Did they have camels in East Africa?
My knees felt weak. From travel? From fear? I couldn't say. From the witch's spell.
My vision felt strange, wavelike and uncertain. If I blinked I might see a purple sky, blue and yellow striped zebras, a river running in flamboyant orange.
EDI[Jet lag,]EDI I told myself. Drugs.
I went to my bed in my emerald nest, and I did not object when Mariah fastened the silky cords around my wrists and ankles.
I would have objected to the blindfold, but in my complacency and confusion, she tied it over my eyes before I knew what she was doing.
Mariah was a witch. Black magic was her paintbrush. I was her canvas.
Then she brushed my hair while I lay tied, and I relaxed, despite my captivity. The mattress beneath me felt like a cloud, like a slow-rolling wave crossing the Caribbean on a sultry day.
The blindfold brought a strange comfort. In the purple blackness, silvery stars danced before my eyes. Gold ones shot past my view.
Maybe the blindfold meant they were going to transport me someplace, and perhaps that someplace would be more amenable to escape. Maybe they realized that they had the wrong girl and they were bringing me home. If they were going to kill me, I thought, they would have done it by now.
Maybe I'd just wake up in my own pillowy bed, in my sea of blue blankets with sun streaming through my white eyelet curtains. Set on a timer, my coffee would just start dripping into the pot, filling my apartment with its delicious scent. I know I must have been smiling as I drifted off to sleep.
I thought fates worse than death were literary exaggerations.
"You no doubt have many questions, and I will answer none of them."
His voice seemed to come from a distant place, and it rung with a fantastic vibration-like he was both behind me and miles away. And his words did not reassure me, although I didn't say as much. If I appeared implacable maybe he'd leave me alone.
"I'm going to give you some rules. They are simple and basic. You will obey them." With my captor in the room, the blindfold was no longer comforting. Where was he? What was he doing? Panic threatened to overwhelm me. I couldn't imagine feeling more vulnerable.
"Who are you?" I demanded, doing my best to sound imperious. "My father will pay you, if it's ransom you're after."
"I like your attitude," he responded in a voice as rich as dark chocolate. If a magician could special order a voice, he'd want this one. "But I will not answer any of your questions." I wondered just how much Dad could afford. This guy seemed like he had very expensive tastes.
I heard him pause as he approached me, and then he said, "Here are the rules."
I waited, hoping for something like, "Say 'please,' and you can go home."
"I will not penetrate you until you beg for it."
At this, I started fighting my bonds in earnest. My dreamlike weakness of the previous day was gone. My wrists jerked and flailed, yanking the ties until they were as taut as my muscles.
"Penetrate" could have several meanings, none of which sounded good. "Are you crazy?" I screamed. "Get away from me!" I tried to rub my blindfold off with my shoulder. Was he getting closer? The blindfold stubbornly held. Damn Mariah and her knot-tying skills.
"Don't be afraid. I will not enter you until you ask-until you beg. And you will. Even then I will not harm you."
In my experience, people say, "I'm not going to hurt you" just before they hurt you. What doctor tells a patient that the injection will hurt like a son of a bitch?
I screamed wildly.
When he caressed the arch of my foot I screamed again, kicking my tied feet maniacally. Unperturbed, he waited until I stopped. My throat was beginning to ache. While continuing his caress up my ankle, he said, "I will touch you everywhere, in every imaginable way, but I will not penetrate you until you want it. And you will want it." His voice sounded huskier than I remembered.
Excerpted from NIGHT SPELL by LUCINDA BETTS Copyright © 2006 by Lucinda Betts. Excerpted by permission.
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