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By Nage Archer
Samhain Publishing, Ltd.Copyright © 2007 Nage Archer
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBefore I met Lady Jacqueline, I had never taken a human life. Knowing my reputation, this might surprise some of you, but it's the truth. There are those who say m'lady was worth killing for, and no doubt, they are correct. But it didn't happen like that, at least not for me. And before I killed, I died a thousand deaths that will continue to haunt me till the end of my days.
My name is Scorch, at least that's how the history books will remember me. My real name is not important, nor was I, until I became Lady Jacqueline's bodyguard. But I'm getting ahead of myself. If you are to understand the nature of our relationship, you must first understand its beginning. It began, like all things, with a big bang.
I will never forget the first moment I saw her. I suppose most men wouldn't. I had heard tales of the Heiress to Baron Ceston's throne and fortune. I suppose everyone had. But nothing could have prepared me for meeting her, for she was so much more-and so much less than I'd expected.
Tales of her beauty were almost certainly exaggerated, for though she was attractive, she was not beautiful in the classic sense of the word. Yet she had a certain undefinable quality about her that made men want her. It was obvious from the first moment you met her and remained obvious forever after. She was one of those women who brought men to their knees and that's all there was to it.
But I wasn't one of those men. I was young, proud, untamable. I have often wondered what it was that first drew her to me, for though I had long ago ceased being modest about my looks, I realized I had little to offer a member of the nobility. It was true my black hair, green eyes, olive skin and muscular body consistently drew women to my bed. But I also knew that would not be the case with her. She was an Heiress and I but a lowly guard, and a new one at that.
I worked for Baron Ceston and life was good. I enjoyed some small amount of respect, as much as my breeding would allow, I got to carry a fancy sidearm, or one I thought was fancy at the time, and I was still young and full of hope for the future. I didn't realize back then, all futures end in death. Only blind-sighted optimists say otherwise.
My story begins in the baron's main gardens, which, strangely enough, was the place the Head of Internal Security asked us to meet with him. I didn't know why at the time, and it would be a long time before I learned. Still, when the Head of Security summons, you don't question, you go.
Jack Warner was a tall man, and built like a mobile infantry unit, even before the surgeons had gotten hold of him. He'd been in the employ of Baron Ceston for many long years. He was old enough to be my father, but I doubt I could have defeated him in combat with any weapon, even while he was sleeping.
What the surgeons can do to a man is beyond belief, as you will soon find out. But I didn't know any of it at the time. All I knew was my commander, Jack Warner, had asked to meet several of the newer guards in the baron's gardens after our shift was done.
I didn't know what to expect. I didn't think I'd done anything wrong, nor did the others when I asked them. There were three of us. John was twenty-five, a year younger than me, and Tom two years older. Both had short dark hair and beards, but in spite of that similarity, they had nothing in common. John was heavier, slower moving and rather quiet. Tom was slim, energetic and loquacious. Despite their differences, they were good friends, closer to each other than I was to either of them.
Lord Warner also had dark hair and a dark beard, but he was so large and dangerous looking, it was hard to even think of him as human. The machine parts built into his body must have brought his weight up to around two hundred kilos. At least one leg and one arm were independent devices made of black corundum and some say his heart had been replaced as well. I sort of doubted it. It had probably just been removed.
So at the end of my shift, I set out for the gardens, accompanied by two guards almost as new as I. We didn't speak as we made our way through the large dome, passing all manner of flowering bushes and trees.
The gardens were empty at that hour, which was possibly why he chose it as a meeting place, though I could think of many other places that would have served better. At least that was my theory at the time.
The baron's gardens were the envy of everyone on Ballista, even those technically above him. I say technically, for though Baron Ceston was not as powerful as some of the high-ranking clergy or the emperor's other appointees, his guile and power allowed him to get away with much that no one else seemed to be able to. He was a brilliant man, our baron. Probably the smartest I'd ever met.
Such were my thoughts as we approached the area for our rendezvous. Lord Warner was already there, looking as dangerous as ever. He appeared almost surreal against the lush green backdrop. The pastel wildflowers sprinkled about added to the incongruity.
Lord Warner waited for us to arrive and said nothing as he looked us over. We did a fair job of pretending not to be terrified, but it's hard to remain calm in the presence of a man who has the right to discipline you any way he chooses. Our very lives were his for the asking.
As I watched him, I wondered what sorts of weapons might be hidden in the cyborg portions of his body. It wasn't long before I found out.
When he deigned to speak, we still didn't know if we were in trouble or not. Lord Warner's voice was as unpleasant as the rest of him.
"Gentleman, if you're ready to begin."
"Yes, sir," I said, just a moment before the other two. I didn't know I was ready, but I suspected Lord Warner didn't care. I never found out what he was going to say, for the next sound we heard was a woman's scream.
I leapt into action, running in the direction of the sound. The one thing that had not occurred to me beforehand was that this was some sort of training exercise, or perhaps even a test. If that were the case, it explained why he'd called us to the gardens. I must have come to the conclusion before John or Tom, for I had quite a head start on them.
Another scream allowed me to pinpoint where the sound was coming from. But it wasn't until I leapt over a hedge that I realized this was no drill. Lady Jacqueline lay on the ground, her white shift dirty and half ripped. There was a man astride her. He seemed familiar, but I couldn't identify him from my position.
The explosion deafened me. My hands sought my ears, though they were too late to do any good. My head rang like a bell. I looked to my left and Lord Warner stood there, cyborg arm pointed at what was left of the attacker. He moved toward Lady Jacqueline and I did the same. She was breathing heavily, but she seemed otherwise uninjured, at least physically.
"M'lady are you hurt?" asked Lord Warner.
She stared at him, then glanced at me. "I'm okay. Just shaken. I can't believe it."
Only then did John and Tom show up. John was breathing hard, but Tom hadn't even broken a sweat. They both stopped as soon as they saw the scene. Tom turned away, but John stared at the half-charred corpse, fascinated.
Lady Jacqueline found her feet and I got my first good look at her. Tall and slender, hair as black as mine, worn as if a crown. Dark eyes like pits, easy to fall into if you weren't careful. Thin lips, pouting slightly. At first I thought she was holding back tears, but I now know she looked like that often. And her body, no longer truly covered by her torn and stained white shift, was to die for, or to kill for as the test of time would prove.
Lord Warner didn't look winded either. "Would you like to tell me just what happened?"
The Heiress dropped her head. "I wish I knew. I decided I needed some peace and retired to the garden, alone but for Carson."
As soon as she named him, I knew who her assailant had been. He had been Lady Jacqueline's personal bodyguard. At first I wondered why he had done it, but a second look at the Heiress, even disheveled as she was, answered my question. To what lengths would a man go if he had to follow her around every day? To be constantly in her presence, without being able to have her. It might be more than any man could bear.
Which was no excuse. Carson had gotten what was coming to him. He might not have, had Lord Warner not requested our presence in the gardens.
Lord Warner didn't approach any closer. Perhaps he was scared of his own reaction, seeing her there like that. I was too, but was younger and didn't have his experience.
I walked right up to her. "You're sure you're all right, m'lady?"
She smiled, and I almost shuddered. That one young woman should have such power didn't seem right. Worse still, I could tell from her expression, she knew just what power she had. Lord Warner spoke and I turned my attention to him, happy for even that distraction.
"My lady, I apologize for this unfortunate incident. I will select another bodyguard immediately."
"You will do no such thing."
"Lady Jacqueline, you realize your father will not allow you to go unguarded."
She looked him dead in the eyes. "I didn't say I would go unguarded. I said you will not select a bodyguard for me. I will choose my own."
A dangerous and thoughtful look entered Lord Warner's eyes. I took an involuntary step backward. "You have someone in mind, I suppose."
Her smile was somewhere between angelic and demonic. "Of course, I do." She whirled and pointed at me. "This one."
"Absolutely unacceptable. He's too new and doesn't have the knowledge a bodyguard would need."
Her smile never faltered. "Then train him."
Without another word she walked past me, but Lord Warner was not through.
"And where do you think you're going?"
She turned back and arched a single eyebrow. "I am going back to my quarters to bathe and rest. I will remain there, until my new bodyguard is trained. If you try to send another in his stead, you will find me most uncooperative. Am I clear?"
I thought Lord Warner would continue to argue the point, but he didn't. I suppose even the Head of Security must obey the wishes of the Heiress. I had not, until that moment, realized just how much power she enjoyed.
She smirked and walked quickly away. Lord Warner gestured to Tom and John and they set off after her. They would accompany her back to her rooms. When we were alone, Lord Warner glared at me.
"I'm sorry, sir, but I had no hand in that. And I'll do my best to protect Lady Jacqueline, even if it means surrendering my life."
"Oh, I'm well aware of that, Mr. Aston. But I am not worried about Lady Jacqueline. It was you I was trying to protect."
I stared at him for a long time before I decided he wasn't joking.
Excerpted from Scorch by Nage Archer Copyright © 2007 by Nage Archer. Excerpted by permission.
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