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By Julie Reece
Month9BooksCopyright © 2016 Julie Reece
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A bottle-green fly hums, rubbing his tiny legs together as though he's plotting something. The insect seems a dirty ornament on the shiny desk nameplate he sits upon. Gold on gold, the engraved letters read Navin Cahvan M.D. This is the third psychiatrist I've met in as many weeks. Part of my mother's plan to fix me. Jumpy nerves, insomnia, nightmares about demons when I finally do fall sleep — these are her justifications. Everyone tries to shrink me like a cheap T-shirt in the dryer.
The tawny-skinned man across the desk folds his knotted fingers over his belly and stares. Dark eyes track my movements beneath two bushy white eyebrows. "Mr. Wynter?"
Right. He asked a question. The fly hums again, wings fluttering against his hairy back. My head pounds, my clothes scratch, eyes burn, and my ears are raw with the smallest sounds echoing deep inside.
When Dr. Cahvan shifts, the leather seat groans in protest. "I can help you. But you must tell me the truth."
All I hear is Jack Nicholson screaming the line from A Few Good Men: "You can't handle the truth!"
"Trust me, Cole. Tell me your secret thoughts."
Trust you? Sure. I tell you what happened and you lock me away forever on meds that keep me drooling, while I play dominoes with people who see giant, pink rabbits. No thanks.
He leans forward. His fingers thread together as his hands rest on the desktop. He taps his thumbs together. "I assure you this is a safe place. I call it ... the circle of trust."
Give me a break. You want me to tell you how I was a mean, dangerous kid. Confess that because I tormented a crippled boy, his father used a magic camera to trap me in an alternate universe as punishment. Explain how I lived a half-life in the Maddox mansion for four years until Raven Weathersby rescued me. About how much I miss her and think about going back someday ... Maybe I am insane.
"Let's discuss something else."
I find his suggestion amusing since I've barely said ten words in the past hour, and our time is almost up.
The good doctor shifts again. "Instead of talking about the past, why not speak of the present. How are you adjusting to life at home? I understand your parents had a welcome home party when you first arrived. How did that go?"
How do you think? "Swell." I would have preferred stuffing my hand in a high-speed blender. A hundred people that I hadn't seen since I was fifteen — and couldn't care less to see again — showed up to shake my hand and recite all they'd ever read about amnesia, the lie Gideon made up to cover my absence. "I really just need some space."
"And you got your wish, did you not? I understand your parents left town yesterday. How does being alone again so soon make you feel?"
Incredibly pissed. "They've always been busy people. I'm used to them traveling." But I wasn't. I thought with all the time apart, my parents might want to stick around a while. Be a family. Nope. Since appearances mean everything, they threw a party right away to show their friends and colleagues how fine I was. The powerful and highly regarded Mr. and Mrs. Wynter pulled out all the stops to prove their love for their long lost son: fine wine, catered dinner, china, crystal, even a string quartet. Yet, my father couldn't keep the disappointment from his face any more than my mother could drown her misery in vodka.
Perhaps to appease their consciences, my folks hooked me up with doctors and provided for my physical needs before bailing. But a new car and an obscenely padded bank account wasn't what I needed. So easily brushed aside again, I couldn't help but wonder if parts of them were relieved when I'd disappeared four years ago.
Dr. Cahvan's eyes narrow. "So, you remember your life up until your trip to the States?"
"Yes." I'm lying about my amnesia. I know it. He knows it. So do my parents, but it's too late to come up with a better story ... like being the victim of a cult brainwashing or joining a psychedelic commune. I drank a different brand of Kool-Aid in Sales Hollow, South Carolina, and I can never tell a soul.
The fly zings to the window. I flinch as the buzzing is magnified ten times in my head. It takes all my will not to jump up and smash the bug against the glass. The doctor watches me with sharp eyes trained to interpret body language. I hold his gaze, though my skin breaks out in a sweat. A sudden wind rattles the panes, and I startle.
Cahvan's mouth crimps at the corners. "Rather breezy today," he says, glancing out the window at the quiet, blue sky.
Who cares about the weather? I have to give the old guy something before I start whining about magic spells, heightened senses, or worse: how my daddy never loved me.
I blow out a breath. "Look, some things seem familiar, others are confusing. I don't need a doctor. I need time." I only meant to throw him a bone so he'd have something to report when my parents call, but my body heats as I talk. Anger, resentment, and fear all claw their way up my throat and charge out of my mouth before I can stop them. "Time I can't get back where I finish school, date hot girls, and grow up like normal kids do. I'm trying. Doing the best I can, but what I don't need is to sit in rooms with smug strangers who are paid to dissect my brain over things I can't explain, and neither of us will ever understand!" I drag my fingers through my shaggy hair. "That time is gone. I'm pissed off, and I guess I'll be pissed off until I'm not anymore."
Dr. Cahvan rubs his jaw. "That's very interesting, Cole."
My laugh is harsh. Not that any of this is funny. "Is it?"
"Yes. Thank you for your honesty today." His bushy eyebrows push together. "Thank you for entering the circle of trust and allowing me to help you. Please see my secretary on your way out and make another appointment for next week."
Seriously? I stand and head for the door. Oh, I'll see your secretary, all right. I'll nod as I walk right past her. He didn't help me. No one can. There are a lot of things I need. But touchy-feely therapy with Doctor Eyebrows isn't one of them.
* * *
After the awkward "circle of trust" episode, I can't decide what to do with myself. I don't want to be around people, but I don't want to go home to an empty house either, so I wind up in the rambling cemetery a couple miles from our house.
I like it here and come pretty often just to think. Crumbling grave markers bear witness to France's rich history, even with the chiseled dates worn and fading with time. Moss, ivy, and ancient trees lend beauty and peace to a place that soothes my soul. I'm not trying to be morbid. I never kept company with the dead. We were the undead, in a non-sparkly kind of way.
I'm not stupid enough to think I'll discover the meaning of life. I'm just trying to find meaning in mine. After surviving a half-death, I've been given a second chance. Trouble is, I don't know what to do with it.
The sun is too hot on my back. No sooner does the thought cross my mind, when a friendly breeze tousles my hair like an old friend. I pull my cell from my pocket and stare at Raven's number. She said to call her anytime, and I do. Gideon said to call her if I wanted my arse kicked. Typical. He's still that insecure kid deep down. Still trying to prove himself, as he tries to control everyone and everything within his reach, just like his old man taught him.
Should have known something was wrong when I first got the invitation to visit Gideon in America all those years ago. My parents were so happy Maddox Senior wasn't pressing charges; they actually thought the gesture was an attempt at friendship. Of course, Mum and Dad sent me packing complete with an olive branch in my mouth. That gesture of goodwill got my picture taken and a trip to The Void with a bunch of vengeful old guys from the early nineteen hundreds and a hot blond with twisted taste in men. We spent our days trying to escape that hell. The labyrinth's ghouls, the surreal existence of consciousness without a physical body, and the constant pain of regret all earmarked a life that wasn't.
My fingers comb the grass at my sides. I close my eyes and feel the day's warmth on my face, the wind threading through my thin tee. I may look like a freak, but I can't stop touching everything around me. While I was gone, I missed the sensation of air in my lungs, the taste of coffee, the sweet sensation of a kiss ...
My thumb starts dialing Rae's number.
Shite. Here we go again.
Come to me, Cole ...
I wonder if I sounded this creepy to Raven when I begged for her help.
Veins at my temples pulse. Leaves shake and laugh in the breeze, the echo reverberating in my head. "Who are you? What do you want with me?" I want to stand, but my limbs weigh a hundred pounds each. My lungs deflate under the crushing pressure, and I struggle to breathe.
The scenery of oaks and elms surrounding the cemetery blur into a muddy gray-green wall, and I know what's happening. Gravestones push up from the ground like gnashing teeth and recede again until the ground transforms into a smooth, stone floor. The world of pedestrians, car horns, and singing birds around the graveyard fade to a quiet worse than death. My body rejects the idea of gravity. The weightlessness of being sucked back into The Void again invades my person like a virus, spreading into my muscles and bones, my very essence.
I will the door of my mind closed to shut out the transformation. I place a mental shield before the magic so it won't consume me, but magic has a will of its own. It snakes under the imaginary door I've erected in my head, enveloping me. I thrash, but it's useless. My soundless screaming and mind-withering despair only seems to feed The Void's strength.
When I open my eyes, the cemetery is gone. I shift on a cold, damp floor, taking in my new surroundings. I've seen this place before, several times. The space is a circular stone room with two tall, skinny windows allowing diffused light inside. A bed sits across from me. Downy quilts worn and faded with use cover the straw mattress. On the wall, a huge, gilt-framed mirror reflects the room where a pretty blond sits in a hardback chair. Watching me.
I'm familiar with strange, but not with sad, soul-eating eyes like hers.
When she rises, I feel like I should thank her, because light from the window shows her curves through an ultra-thin nightdress. The sight chokes my airflow for a whole different reason.
I'm so not thinking of Raven. For all my faults, I'm not the cheating type, but I am a guy, and this girl is seriously fit! I want to touch her in the worst way, but I swallow instead. Attempting to be a gentleman, I lift my gaze and focus on the far wall, yet somehow — because I'm still a guy — I end up watching the way her hair hangs in white blond waves to her thighs. Her rosebud mouth opens slightly. Pleading eyes, more silver than blue, threaten to pull me under and drown me. None of this helps curb my impulse to reach for her.
Then I think about how she brought me here against my will, and that helps tamp down the hormones.
What do you want?
Can't you guess?
I can. I pleaded with Raven for the same help not too long ago. Inside The Void, I thought I'd met everyone. The ones that Maddox had imprisoned, and the indigenous inhabitants of the labyrinth. I hadn't known there were any others.
The drip-drop of a leaky faucet is the only sound as I gather my thoughts. "Who are you? Where are you? I don't understand what's happening. Where is this place? Did Gideon put you here?" I rattle off my questions not pausing for a response.
She doesn't answer. Maybe she can't.
Wind picks up, whooshing through the hollow room, though the windows are shut. The sound grows, as though someone dropped a microphone in a washing machine. I grit my teeth against the noise. My mind squeezes in the pressurized vacuum.
Cole ... She extends a thin, white hand.
I remember Raven. How she fell to her knees on the floor of the mill house when we first met. Pain rips into my psyche, claws at my sanity. The same way I'm sure it did hers.
"I'm sorry. Forgive me, Raven. I didn't know."
... My name is Rosamond ...
Stone walls smear and fade, the beautiful girl along with them. I can't breathe. Then, the faint outline of tree tops bleed back into view.
... Rosamond Bryer ...
My panting rivals an overheated Saint Bernard. Grass pokes my palms. Rough bark scrapes my spine through my T-shirt. Any trace of the castle turret is erased as the same decrepit cemetery I know solidifies, and the garden is as it was before.
I'm leaning against an old tree, yet my cell and sunglasses still lie next to the rose bushes where I was sitting, almost twenty feet away. I have no memory of moving. How did I get way over here?
Both hands plow through my hair with my exhale. What the bloody hell just happened? Am I imagining this? A nightmare left over from the reality of my imprisonment. Or is the girl real? Trapped like I was and waiting for someone with the courage to free her.
Is that someone me? I've been a lot of things, but brave isn't one of them. To help her means going back to the mansion.
No. I definitely do not need this shite. I'm starting over, leaving that life behind. Yet, the haunted expression on the girl's face tugs at me. Something about her seems familiar. I'm gutted over how she reached for me. Raven doubted, too, but not for long. If the blond is real, then she's really in trouble. And if she's really in trouble, what, if anything, are you prepared to do about it, Cole Wynter?CHAPTER 2
I don't hate cats. Honest. But since my girlfriend Raven's pet is more bear than cat, I might hate this one. She often says a cat will focus on the one person in the room who doesn't want him. That theory appears true, since he's on top of me.
No. Not cute. I tense as the mangy thing marches around in my lap, getting comfortable. His tail swipes my nose, and I sneeze. When his nails dig through my jeans to my thighs, I've had enough.
"My poor baby, come here."
I wish I could say she's talking to me, but Raven's gaze stays on her cat as she walks toward the sofa. She lifts her hundred-pound panther off my lap. Okay, twenty-five pound Maine Coon. Still. She kisses his head, and gently scolds him like a naughty child before depositing him on the rug. Edgar parks his fat carcass in front of the fire and is asleep in seconds.
Raven returns and sits Indian style on the floor at my feet with the slow grace of a dancer. Her chin balances on my knee as she peers up with slate-colored eyes. Unusual, infinite, I will never tire of looking into them. The scent of her shampoo is clean, like the woods after a rain. Her smile distracts me from thoughts of cooking her cat. When I can't stand the distance between us anymore — which isn't long — I pull her closer, kissing her smooth brow, her nose, and neck. I can't get close enough.
"So, Mr. Maddox," she says, clearing her throat. "Where were we?" Her hands fall away from my chest and she resumes her spot on the floor.
She's been doing that more lately, creating distance between us, and not just physically. Raven's never had trouble speaking her mind, yet lately when I ask, she says, "I'm fine." I hate that insipid word. As Artisans, Maddox men are born and bred to act without mercy or hesitation. So, I can't believe I'm admitting this, but I don't know what to do. Cutthroat ultimatums probably aren't the best approach with your girlfriend.
In the past, I dated plenty but seldom saw the same girl twice. I wasn't big on sharing my feelings, and a girl that got too clingy got her number deleted from my cell.
But I'm not that guy anymore. I'm the one people talk about, the sap that changed when he fell for the right girl, and you know what? They're right. I don't give a shit if I'm a cliché. I'm happy, damn it. So, instead of asking why she pulled away, I give her space and answer, "We were talking about your Bug."
Her dilapidated 1973 VW Super Beetle is parked in my driveway. I want to buy her something else. Anything else.
Her full lips turn down. "I like my little car."
"That's not a car," I say, still focused on her mouth. "It's rust. Stuck together with more rust."
There's a smile. "One man's rust is another man's classic. Red is my color, and it runs just fine."
And so continues our battle of wills. "The car is going. That's done. What about an Audi, or a MINI? You might as well tell me what you'd like to drive, or I'll choose something for you."
She draws a smiley face on my knee with her fingernail. "I appreciate the offer, I do, but I can't accept a whole car."
Excerpted from The Paladins by Julie Reece. Copyright © 2016 Julie Reece. Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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