A Season of Miracles by Heather Graham released on Nov 1, 2008 is available now for purchase.
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He had never ridden harder in his life. Desperate as he was, he became aware of each slight sound and scent, every sensation. The day was cold, crisp. The sky was blue. His horse's hooves made thunder, striking again and again upon the ground. Distant thunder, muffled by the thickness of the snow. The cold seeped into him, though he was sweating as he rode.
His horse's hooves seem to beat out words. We will not make it. We will not make it.
But they had to try. He had sworn that he would allow no evil to happen. He had sworn to love, to honor, to protect. He had done so in secret. What had seemed logic had been cowardice. And now ...
Now they would pay.
"Hey-yah!" he shouted, heels digging into the sides of a fine animal already doing its best to travel the slick, snow-covered roads.
"Sweet Jesu, Michael, you'll be the death of us all," Justin called, riding hard behind him with the others.
"There is no time!" he roared. "No time!"
"We'll be no good to the lass with broken necks," Justin said.
"Worry about your own, then, because I will trust my neck to God."
"Aye, God be with us."
The snow flew. The ground trembled.
They rode. Harder, harder.
God was with them.
How had heunderestimated the evil of his enemies? Michael wondered bleakly. It was incredible, chilling beyond death, the lengths to which men would go out of jealousy, bitterness and greed.
"Faster," he insisted, fear bringing out the sharp command in his voice.
Again he felt the sweat that trickled down his chest despite the whipping wind and the harsh chill. The air was fresh, as fresh as the scent of her, clean, enticing, invigorating. How her scent seemed to haunt him now, despite the mad rush of their reckless ride, the whistle and groan of the wind whipping in a tempest around them. Snow flew; great chunks of it, filthy with dirt and grass, as their horses tore up clods of it under their racing hooves. His heart hammered in time, thudded, thundered, and still the words rang in his head. We will not make it, we will not make it, we must make it, at all costs, for if we don't ...
If we don't ...
The fear that seized him was unbearable.
"We're nearly upon the valley," Raynor, another of his men, riding at Justin's side, called out. "It's over that hill. We've nearly made it."
Nearly. They were so close.
* * *
How glorious, she thought, feeling it on her cheeks.
The day was cold and she so barely clad that she shivered, yet still she felt the kiss of the sun on her cheeks. What a wondrous feeling. Something that heated, warmed, giving her the illusion, if only for precious moments, of a deep, encompassing warmth of bliss and well-being; the illusion of being cherished, secure ...
As she had felt with him.
But it was but an illusion, for the day was cold, bitterly cold.
And she would feel real warmth soon enough.
Her arms ached from the ties. She had not felt them so much at first. Now, they ached with a vengeance.
"You have not as yet begun to know pain."
Her enemy stood before her again, watching her eyes, seeking her panic, her pleading. How he longed for it. And God knew, if it would bring her release, she would promise him anything, swear to anything. God help her, indeed, she would do anything.
But she knew, meeting his eyes, that no plea, no "confession" nothing whatsoever on her part, would change things.
"You know I won't beg," she said simply.
"Aye, you're too stupid."
"You'd accuse me now of stupidity? I thought you considered me far too clever for my own good."
"Not so clever. You are about to die hideously. Or do you believe in miracles?"
Her eyes fell from his. God, how she wanted to believe in miracles!
"I would never beg you, because I know that it would change nothing, that you've no intention of sparing me, that any plea on my part would be nothing but sheer entertainment to you."
"So you stand calmly, thinking aye, there might be a miracle. Salvation might come."
"It's the Christmas season, is it not?"
"For some, dear lass. For you ... I think not."
He wanted her to break. To burst into tears. To confess, to plead, to throw herself in abject humility at his feet. Well, she couldn't quite do that. Not bound as she was.
But she would not cry or break or give a confession.
Her tormentor leaned against the stake. "He will not come, you know."
"If he can, he will."
"There are no miracles. Ask me, and God, for forgiveness."
"God knows my soul. And you should be asking my forgiveness."
"I do what I must to preserve what is right."
"What is right? You betrayed me."
"You betrayed us all. As he betrays you now. You turned your back on your heritage. Now ... ah, well, you had your chances. Wait until you smell the fire," he said, and he came close to her, fingers entwining in her hair as he forced her to look down at the dry tinder and faggots at her feet. "The scent. Oh, God, you cannot begin to imagine the scent of burning human flesh. It's a sickening smell. Enough to make the staunchest man vomit."
"Then, you must move on quickly from here. I wouldn't have the scent of my burning flesh ruin your Christmas Eve repast, good sir."
She saw his face change, saw the fury, but there was nothing she could have done to prevent the blow he leveled against her face. Her head rocked against the stake that held her. Pain shot behind her eyes.
And still, she knew, she had not as yet begun to know pain....
He stiffened then, knowing he should not have allowed the others to witness his show of emotion, his lack of control. He was a man of right; God knew, he followed the law. To execute her was his duty.
He came very close to her face. His breath touched her cheeks, replacing the warmth of the sun. "You do not begin to understand. I will smell you roast, and I will savor the scent. Indeed, I will take pleasure. And tonight I will enjoy my meal with a gusto you cannot begin to imagine. The taste will remain on my tongue forever."
"Forever may not be long," she noted, amazed that she could offer him a smile.
He shook his head. "Poor, naive beauty that you be. But are you so beautiful now? Hair tangled, cheeks windburned, clothes in tatters, your body but bones for the flames to ravage. Would he be so enamored now? What fools you were. What fools."
He had said that he would come for her. He had sworn. Sworn ...
Had he, like God, forsaken her? Had her sins been so great?
No, he would come ... might still come ...
"I cannot help but believe you will one day find yourself the fool," she whispered.
"That day will not be today," he said grimly, his features, once striking, marred with cruelty and taut with fury. "I could have had you strangled. I might have saved you the agony. But you are a little fool, with your dreams of love and the pleasures of the flesh. Even now, you dream of his touch. But what you will feel is the kiss of the flame, the lick of the blaze, the warmth of hell's damnation."
He watched her eyes.
"Not even my death, my agony, will free you, will it? You are the one who will suffer. You will spend your life in bitterness. Eaten by flames from the inside out, burning in the hell of your own hatred."
He looked as if he would strike at her again, but he managed to turn away.
He stepped toward the crowd, raised a hand. The murmuring grew silent.
"I have tried, pleaded, begged ... but she has no words of remorse, she offers no prayer for redemption. God help her, forgive her her transgressions against her country. Pray for her, though it seems her tormented soul faust return to the Devil, her maker. Let the fires cleanse her, and ourselves, and let us then pray from our hearts in the joy of the season we now enter, a time of God."
The faggots were lit.
Flame quickly blazed before her. Around her.
She longed to cry out, to curse him. To tell the world that the real monster was there before them, clad in a cloak of law and respectability. She wanted to say that no one was safe, no one who stood in his way, no one 'who coveted anything he wanted ...
Instead she found voice and strength to say, "God forgive you, sir. God grant you ease from the torture and agony you will suffer again and again"
She broke off, choking. How quickly the flames had risen. Gone was the warmth of the sun, in its place the growing heat of the fire. She could speak no more. Her skirt was aflame. She tried to twist away, but it was no use. She burned! Dear God, she burned, the agony entering her lungs, her flesh.
She began to scream....
They rode over the rise and looked down into the valley. And saw.
He closed his eyes, damning himself, raging within, without.
He had imagined her scent.
He could smell it now.
On the air.
"Jesus! Our Lord Father, Jesus, Mary and Joseph," Justin intoned.
"Help her, for the love of God, help her!" Raynor demanded. "You know what you must do."
"God help me, I cannot."
"You must!" Raynor said.
"For the love of God!" Justin cried, tears in his eyes. "Will you look? It is too late. It has gone too far. You know what you must do!"
Tears streamed down Michael's face. He prayed, he begged forgiveness, God's forgivenessand hers. Split seconds passed.
He knew what he must do.
"By God, by heaven, by hell, I swore ..."
He had sworn that he would come for her.
"By the angels, by God, by Christ, I swear, the time will come"
He broke off. Each second meant great agony.
He did indeed know what he had to do.
Present day Manhattan
It all started with the tarot cards.
And then the dreams of burning.
And of course the cat.
But at two o'clock on that Halloween afternoon, those things were still in the future.
Jillian sat at her desk at Llewellyn Enterprises, tapping a pencil on the wood as she stared at her new design. She'd set out to create a contemporary cross, with clean, sleek lines, to be available in yellow and white gold, and platinum. Every year since she'd finished college and joined the company full-time, she'd done a special Christmas design, available in a very limited quantity. By tradition, the invitation to purchase went out November fifth, all orders had to be received by the twentieth, and the pieces were delivered by special courier one month later. She loved designing jewelry. There was something so permanent about it. Pieces could be handed down through generations. A beautiful piece could be timelessor speak volumes about the decade of its creation.
This piece, however, wasn't saying what she had intended at all. It wasn't that she disliked the designon the contrary, it was coming along beautifully. She simply hadn't envisioned it quite this way.
"Wow, that is pretty. I guess you're worth your paycheck." The voice, masculine and amused and coming from over her shoulder, was so startling that she nearly bolted out of her chair. The speaker was her cousin, Griff, handsome and too charming at thirty. Tall and well built, with sandy hair and hazel eyes, he wore Armani with runway perfection.
She hadn't seen him enter her office. She had been so intent on the drawing that she'd been oblivious to everything else.
Griff stretched out playfully on her teak deskà la 1930s Hollywood movie. "Excellent, sweetie. Excellent. It speaks `new millennium' loudly. Unfortunately, it appears that the new millennium you're planning on promoting is man's movement into the 1000sCeltic-looking thing, isn't it?"
"Hmm," she murmured.
He traced the pattern she had drawn, grinning away. "Oooh, the old boy is going to go ballistic over this one," he said flippantly, referring to Douglas Alexander Llewellyn, her grandfather, his great-uncle, and CEO of Llewellyn Enterprises. "Could his angel have failed this time? He does think you're an angel, you know. He's unaware that you're half angel, half fire-breathing dragon."
"He realizes it completely. He's just very fond of dragons. And, Griff, get your body off my desk. I have work to do, and I don't need your scrawny self getting in my way."
"How dare you?" he asked, in a tone of genuine indignation. "My body isn't scrawny. It's practically perfectin every way. In fact, it's too bad we're cousins and that we'd have horrible, two-headed-monster offspring, or I'd let you see just how perfect."
Jillian wrinkled her nose and sat back, looking at him. "Thank God that the possibility of two-headed children is going to spare me. I shudder to think ,of it. You're just going to have to share all that perfection with someone else."
"Actually, we're only second cousins. Maybe the kids would only be pathetically cross-eyed. Come to think of it ..." he mused, "did you know that William of Orange married his first cousin, Mary Stuart, and they ruled together as William and Mary?"
"And they left no heirs," she reminded him pleasantly.
"Half the royalty of Europe was closely related. Everyone out there was a descendant of Queen Victoria."
"And half the royalty of Europe wasand isvery strange," she said. "Griff"
"C'mon, the old boy is kind of like a king, and he'd be so happy to think he was leaving his little kingdom to those of his own blood, don't you think?"
"No, I don't think, and I'm thanking God at this moment that surely you're not serious," she said, shaking her head.
"You're just refusing to see the possibilities."
"Griff, was there a point to this visit?" she asked pointedly, glancing at her watch. Grill liked to torture hergood-naturedly, of course, or so he claimed, as did the rest of her family members who were part of Llewellyn EnterprisesDaniel, Theo and Eileen. Jillian knew that she tended to be her grandfather's fair-haired child, despite the fact that she hadn't risen to the head of the family class on purpose, nor was she calling the shots at the company now. But she had grown up with her grandfather, she knew him bestand loved him best. Jewelry design was her favorite part of the work, while Theo was a crack marketer, and Eileen's expertise was public relations.
Daniel was the one with his hands on the reins, thoughright behind her grandfather's. He knew the business, every aspect of it, and with the scope of their various concerns, she was glad. Perhaps her grandfather could control everything, but he was the only man who could. People tended to think of the company as one giant prize. It wasn't. It was a giant jumble of various enterprises, and it took a variety of talents to keep it in its current excellent shape.
Griff always told her that his expertise was looking good and pretending to be busy, whether he was or wasn't. And, of course, being charming. He had a point. She couldn't help but like Griff herself.
Eileen was her first cousin, an only child like herself. The boys were the grandsons of her grandfather's brother, who had perished in the ever precious "Old Country." Douglas had outlived not only his brother, but also his two sons and his nephew, the boys' father, Steven. Jillian often thought of how it must have pained him to lose so many people he had loved so much. But he never faltered; he went on, giving his devotion to the remaining Llewellyns. No one had been forced into the business; they had come because of the same fierce sense of family pride and loyalty.
"You know," Griff said, wagging a finger at her, "you could do a lot worse. I am handsome, witty, urbane and charming."
"Of course I could do worse. But you're my cousin. So, Griff"
"Don't you remember playing naked together on those fur rugs when we were babies?"
"Griff, we never played naked together on any fur rugs."
"I guess not. If we had, you would have remembered."
She groaned and laid her head on the desk. "Griff, what's your problem? You're cute, you're"
"Cute? I want to be sexy and devastating."
"Okay, you're sexy and devastating."
"And I'm really trying to finish up and get out of here today."
"I'm really here on an errand of mercy."
"Oh?" she queried carefully.
"It's Halloween. I didn't want you going home alone. You know, poor little rich girl, all alone in the family mansion. That big old place where none of the rest of us are invited to live."
She leaned back, grinning. "You are such a pathetic liar."
"Well, in a way, but not really. I don't want to live in the family mansion. I like my privacy. And believe it or not, the family fortune isn't my bag, though I do like to live with a certain style."
"Griff, I have no fear of you ever changing."
He grinned. "I'm worthless, totally. And happy. And smart enough to be grateful."
"You pretend to be worthless, but you know you're not. Anyway, I need to get out of here."
"So you can sit by the fire like a little old lady and hand out candy to the kiddies? No. Ever since Milo died, you don't do anything or go anywhere. It's time for you to start doing things again. You're not a mole. Not to mention, you're far too young and ... yes, good-looking. Why, Jillian, some people might even call you beautiful. Thanks to good family genes, of course. And right now all that beauty is just being wasted. You need to get out again."
She felt a rush of air escape, her. It was odd how life went on, but that, at strange moments, grief would come sailing back and, like a blanket, wrap itself around her. She had known what she was doing when she got married. She had always known she would lose Milo.
And she knew that Griff really was here to help her.
So she smiled. "For your information, I am going out."
"A date?" he queried.
"With Robert Marston?" he asked carefully.
"Robert Marston?" she repeated impatiently.
Robert Marston had just started working for the company. He wore Armani just as well as Griff did, but he came with sharp, very dark eyes and, in Jillian's opinion, a sharperpossibly darkermind. He was handsome, intelligent, deep-voiced and very articulate. He had gone to school with Theo, and spent the past five years with one of the fastest-growing computer companies in the world. He was the type of man who walked into a room and drew attention. By his physical nature he seemed to exude authority.
She had felt wary of him from the moment she had first seen himand that had actually been from quite a distance. She didn't even know the color of those dark eyes of his. There had been far too many rumors flying about for her to willingly meet the man her grandfather had brought into the business.
Was he stepping on her cousins' toes? Or were her cousins in agreement with the situation, content for Marston to be the one with the power? Somehow, she doubted it.
"Why on earth would you assume I'm going out with him?" she asked too sharply. She had wanted to convey courteous impatience. She was afraid that her tone had given away concern.
His grin told her that he had, indeed, heard far more than impatience in her voice. "Well, are you going out with him?"
"No, I haven't even met him yet. I saw him across a room. And I don't believe in going out with business associates."
"I'm going out with Connie."
"With Connie?" he repeated. Was that relief she heard in his voice? Connie had been one of her best friends forever, way back to grade school. Connie was also her administrative assistant. And since it was such a family enterprise, Connie's husband, Joe, also worked for the company. He was on Daniel's staff.
"Yes, Connie and I are going out. As we do every Halloween," she reminded him.
He dropped his teasing manner for a moment and looked at her seriously. "You're really going to go"
"Christmas shopping, yes."
"As everyone does on Halloween," he responded with a fine line of sarcasm.
"It's a personal tradition," she said with feigned indignation. It was a strange tradition, she knew, and it had started when they were little kids who went trick-or-treating together. Now Connie had two daughters, a dog, a cat, a bird and in-laws coming out the kazoo, so she traditionally started her Christmas shopping on October thirty-first, convinced that the best Christmas sales came on Halloween, when everyone was doing last-minute scrambling for a costume. They had a great time shopping, then going trick-or-treating with the girls, and then, usually, just spending the evening together checking out the acquired candy.
"All right," Griff said. "Just so long as you're really going out."
"I really am."
"Not to baby-sit or hand out candy."
"No." Her voice was steady. She wasn't baby-sitting, and she wasn't handing out candy.
"And you're really going to have a good time."
"Because if you came with me, I'd show you a good time, you know."
"I'm sure you would."
He slid off her desk at last, brushing her cheek with his fingertips. "I'd show you off to all my friends. You are gorgeous, you know."
She caught his hand and squeezed it. "Thanks, Griff."
"Oh, by the way, Daniel asked to see you. His office."
Griff looked at his watch. "Hmm ... a while ago, I guess."
"Griff, why didn't you tell me?"
"I'm sure it's nothing." He placed his hands on her desk and leaned toward her again. "Why don't you defy him? Just go home!"
"Because it might be important," she said impatiently. She stood and walked past him.
She turned back.
"Happy Halloween. And merry Christmas shopping."
Eileen Llewellyn paced in front of the storyboards set up in her office, looking at the newest sketches for the catalog campaign. Of medium height, with coal-dark hair that was expertly styled to flatter her heart-shaped face, she was elegant, efficient and a picture of total sophistication. She liked business suits with tailored jackets, short skirts and high heels. She walked with an aura of confidence and authority. One look from her cool blue eyes could silence a room. She had been born to soar in the business world.
But at the moment she was agitated. She groped for the pack of cigarettes on her desk, slipped one out without looking and lit it, grateful in the back of her mind that the company owned the building and she could smoke in her own office whenever she damn well pleased. Exhaling a cloud of smoke eased her aggravation slightly, but still, she continued to stare at one storyboard, in particular. It showed a woman in an off-the-shoulder, long-sleeved, dramatic gown with a flowing skirt; it somehow had the look of something from another time, another world. The woman was draped across an iron chair near a fireplace, and a man was bending down before her, his fingers brushing the bare flesh of her throat while he set a locket around her neck. It was a wonderful sketch. Striking. Seldom could one piece of art speak so clearly, especially in the commercial world. The artist was to be highly commended. It conveyed everything it should. The timelessness of a gift of fine jewelry. The pure romance of such a gift. The class, refinement ... more. It was wonderful. What she could do with this one sketch alone ...
But, damn, it was irritating.
There was a tapping on her door.
"I'm busy," she called out sharply.
The door opened, anyway.
Theo walked in. He was a tall man, imposing in stature. Though barely thirty, he had already acquired a few gray strands in his dark hair. They gave an impression of wisdom and authority. He knew how to use his physical presence well, but he didn't intimidate her. She glanced at him over her shoulder, irritation evident in her eyes.
"Theo, I said"
"Yeah, I can see you're busy, puffing away."
"What do you want?"
"It's great, isn't it? I want to use it for more than just the catalog. I want to pull some of the ads we've already got for December and rush this in, instead."
She flashed him a frown. "Theo, it's way too late to go changing the Christmas ads! December magazines are already on their way out."
"I was thinking newspapers. And maybe a television campaign, after Christmas."
"Television? It's a sketch!"
Theo was silent for a moment, arms folded over his chest, eyes on hers. He smiled slowly. "We both know the real thing isn't a sketch."
Excerpted from A Season of Miracles by Heather Graham. Copyright © 2001 by Heather Graham Pozzessere. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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