An impossible puzzle, a long-buried secret, and three hot men are about to blow the lid of a conspiracy that’s not of this world.
What would you do if I told you that all of the greatest villains and geniuses were located in one place after they died? I know this for a fact because somehow I wound up there too. I have no idea how I got stuck in this prison with them, and now we have no way out. Even Einstein can’t find one, and he’s smarter than me!
It’s been two months of trying to figure out who is doing what and why we were banished here when. I never imagined my escape plan would involve three insanely sexy men. Elijah, Wilder, and Phoenix are all completely different, but brilliant in their way. If we want to leave our prison, we’ll have to rely on each other according to our ultimatum.
Play the game, or be snuffed out forever
I feel like I have two personalities battling for supremacy as I step inside of the warehouse and allow myself a moment to take everything in. I love fundraising for the cause, but I hate crowded rooms. Magic has been worked as I slept. The drab gray slabs appear to be a dazzling event space. At two a.m. last night, I had my doubts we would get to this point. Rows of fairy lights hang down from the ceiling and wind around the pillars. The tiny white lights contrast with the black velvet runners we put up to hide the ugly concrete walls. The floor’s dull shine made me proud. I’d driven the floor cleaner back and forth more times than I could count. Tonight, the work proved to be worth it.
By the stage were round tables with velvet blue tablecloths and white chairs with matching fabric draped across the back to match the starry night theme. The cloud lights I’d toiled over were perfection. It’s amazing what you can do with pillow stuffing, a glue gun, and cheap lanterns. My fingers bore the scars from that hot glue. I’ll be lucky if I still have fingerprints. It’s incredible what an anemic budget, a cause you were passionate about, and honest to God minions can accomplish.
People in need are my passion, children in particular. As an adopted child, I’ve always been aware of how fortunate I was. Arthur and Betty Osborne were in their forties when they decided to adopt. Established in life with plenty of love and attention to give, they’d helped make me into a young woman I’d like to think made them proud. Sure, at twenty-four I’m still living in a one-bedroom apartment in a questionable part of town, but non-profit workers weren’t known for their fat salaries. They were known for their impact on the world. At least, that’s what I told myself when I ended up eating Ramen noodles for a few days solid on pay week.
A body brushes against me, and I mentally cringe. “I can’t believe how well this place cleaned up. The dust alone must’ve taken ages to clear away.” I force a smile as the older woman with blonde hair smiles at me.
“You’ve done a wonderful job with this, True.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Walsh. We couldn’t do it without volunteers like you.”
“You know Mr. Walsh and I love helping such a worthy cause. Children are overlooked all too often. Isn’t that right, dear?” Mrs. Walsh patted his hand.
“I love having time to myself even more,” Mr. Walsh thought.
I hide my snicker as I picture his fishing trips with his friend while Mrs. Walsh volunteers.
Mr. Walsh nodded his head. “It’s very true, Peggy. I’m grateful my Peggy has found something she’s so passionate and involved with.”
“We’re lucky to have her.” Their thoughts are harmless, amusing even. Knowing what people are thinking, hiding, or plotting is hit or miss. Some minds are like closed books, while others virtually broadcast every emotion they experience.
I move forward, trying not to trip over the full, pale blue skirt adorned with flowers. I look like I’m going to a quinceañera. My mom might’ve gone a bit overboard when we were dress shopping, but I was happy to indulge her since it got her to drop the subject of dating and settling down. Weaving my way through the crowd, I keep a careful distance as I schmooze with the volunteers I recognize along with potential donors.
My temples are throbbing by the time I escape the warehouse three hours later, and fast walk to my car with my dress bunched up in my hands. Hitting the key fob, I shove my skirts into the driver’s seat and squeeze into the space left over. Manipulating the tulle nightmare down so I can see in the small sedan, I start the car. Tires spin a little too fast over blacktop, squealing as I hit the corner and bulldoze my way onto the street.
My headache fades, and my chest loosens as I put distance between me and the gala. It’d been a huge success. Now I just needed a couple of days to recover in solitude. By the time I reach my complex and throw the car in park, I’m more relaxed but still exhausted. I need a palette cleanser and beer. After trudging up two flights of wooden stairs to my apartment, I let myself in, lock the door, and kick off the feet killers better known as heels. Digging my toes into the plush carpet, I sigh in relief.
My space is littered with selenite towers to help bring up vibrations and block out the bad juju. Onyx pyramids helped reinforce that along with black cat salt along with the doorway. Dropping the skirt of my gown, I padded over to the fridge, pulled out a local beer, and plopped down on the chocolate-brown suede couch. Turning on The Originals, I settle in for a marathon and tune out. When you know the show by heart, your brain can rest. The eye candy doesn’t hurt with bringing up my mood, either. As my eyes grow heavy, I find myself being the objection of Klaus’s latest obsession, and I don’t mind that one bit.
The sunlight teased my lids, pulling me kicking and screaming from my sleep. I was just about to find out how much Klaus wanted me. Disgruntled, I woke and found myself staring up at a pale blue sky through the limb of trees covered with bright red flowers. What the hell?
Pushing myself up onto my elbows, I squinted. Is this a dream within a dream? That was odd and unsettling. As a lucid dreamer, I tended to control my dreams, and this had felt like waking up. Petals fell. Sitting up completely, I frowned and held my hands out, palms up. Roses? They don’t grow in trees. Well, now I know I’m dreaming. Pushing to my feet, I decided to enjoy the strange dreamworld I’d somehow landed in. Maybe the star-themed gala triggered my imagination?
Turning my head up toward the sun, I soaked in the rays. Closing my eyes, I spun around, letting the skirt bell out around me, the way I’d longed to the night before. The petals continued to float down, and I giggled. Ready to explore, I paused, slightly dizzy as I observed my surroundings. Large, rose-covered trees filled the forest around me. Bright red shifted to pink, and then to lilac and lavender. It was a pastel explosion. My eyes couldn’t help but feast. As I walked farther, the roses turned bright blue, and I couldn’t help but feel like I was Alice in Wonderland. The trees gave way, and I found a moss-covered pathway winding its way through the center. Stepping onto the squishy surface, I continued my walk. The forest began to shift. Colors became hyper-real, and the limbs of trees started to braid together like hair. Skulls appeared, dangling off with crowns of colorful flowers.
There was a beauty in contrast. Large, black butterflies highlighted with bright, colorful patterns etched onto the wings flew by. Impossible patterns. Hearts, skulls, stars, and an anatomically correct heart? My eyebrows drew together. Stranger and stranger.
In the distance, I spotted a bright blue home, unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Colorful red stripes outlined the doorframe and window. A lush green courtyard of plants rested a few feet away from the entrance. A southwestern-style wicker outdoor set nestled in an alcove. Colorful pillows with festive pattern and tassels lined the white cushions were on the couch and chair set.
Lively pottery also filled the space.
“You like what you see?” a soft voice with a strong South American accent asked behind me.
Turning, I found a striking young woman with raven locks slicked back from her face, thick black eyebrows, and delicate facial features. Her bright red lips turned up at the corner in a mischievous smile. Her petite frame was clothed in a three-piece gray suit reminiscent of something I imagined Sirius Black would wear in his heyday. My mind struggled to place her vaguely familiar face.
“Yes, it’s a beautiful place.”
“It’s my home. I call it Casa Azul.”
“The blue house. It’s fitting.”
“You’ve been sent here for a reason,” the woman said.
“Yes, because I’m exhausted and had alcohol before I went to sleep.”
The woman threw back her head and laughed. “You still think this is a dream? I understand. I once thought the same thing. Come, let us drink sangria and talk.”
I hesitated, weirded out by the life-like surroundings, and my inability to change things. Wake up. This is only a dream. Open your eyes. Closing my eyes, I focused on the weight of my body and breathing slowly. I opened my eyes once more, and my stomach dropped as my heart raced. I’m still here.
“You’re starting to understand this is no dream, yes? Come.” She gestured for me to follow her.
“I don’t even know your name,” I whispered, stunned.
“Frida. Frida Kahlo.”
“Ahh, you know me?”
“That will make our time together easier. Every person you meet here has something to teach you.”
“Where is here?” Other than my nightmare I can’t escape.
Frida shrugged. “It is everywhere and nowhere.”
“What does that mean?”
“What do you think it means?” Frida asked.
I shook my head, frustrated. “I don’t know.”
“Search inside of yourself. Focus, and then tell me. You have always had a way of knowing things you shouldn’t, but you fight it.” Frida shook her head. “For a time, I also hid my true self. I didn’t love every part of me. If I could change one thing, it would be that. When you know and love yourself, it changes your perspective in so many ways.”
“I love myself.”
Frida studied me intently, and I fought the urge to fidget beneath her intense gaze. “Do you believe that?”
My throat swelled, and I found myself unable to lie.
“The question is why?”
“Because no one wants to be a freak. If you start telling people you can hear their thoughts, they’re going to think you’re insane, or worse yet fear you. You know people don’t like what they can’t understand.”
“Yes, but what does denying ourselves ever do for us?”
“It allows us to blend in,” I said automatically.
“Is that truly living?”
I didn’t have an answer for her, so I shrugged.
“Come. Walk with me. When I found myself at my lowest, I rediscovered life and purpose through painting.”
“I’m not artistic.” Even my stick people were abysmal.
“We all are. You must learn to paint in your way.” She spread her arms out like a bird about to take flight. “Here, we can create whatever we can imagine. Showing you how to do this will be my gift to you.”
The sky lightened, and the world around us blurred, taking on a cartoonish vibe. She grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the back of the house.
“I still don’t know where we are.”
“An impossible place meant to punish and reward depending on the life you’ve led. If you’re very clever and pay attention, you may just escape.”
Her riddles confounded and angered me. “This isn’t a game.”
The joy faded from her face. She frowned as the sparkle left her eyes. “No. For you, it isn’t. I’m not sure how much time I have with you, so I implore you to listen and learn. What is there to lose by doing this?”
She exhaled. “You must connect with yourself. Not the version of yourself you show others or wish to be. The very core of your being.” She placed my hand over my heart. “Inhale, breathe in, feel your heart beating.”
Concentrating on the air filling my lungs, I pushed it back out and thinking about the organ pumping blood throughout my body. Its steady pounding was like a metronome. Silence filled the space around me. A flame flickered higher, and instead of dousing it, I embraced it. The flames engulfed me, but I didn’t burn. The power I tried so hard to minimize flared up inside of me, exploding out of my chest like a phoenix reborn. As much as I wanted this to be some strange dream, I knew it’s not. I could feel the disconnection between the world I knew and this strange place. It felt like having one foot in reality and the other in some alternate dimension.
“Have you begun to understand?” Frida whispered.
“Am I dead?” I asked shakily.
“No. You’re in a limbo of sorts. Eventually, you will have a chance to earn your way home. People like you, who are still alive, always do.”
“And if I fail?”
“Then, you will die, True Osborne.”
“That’s not an option.”
“So, we will learn to create our reality,” Frida replied.
Numb, I nodded my head. There’s no other choice.
“Later my friend will join us. I believe she can help you realize your true potential. The only way to truly conquer our fears is to face them head-on. Until then, they control us.” Frida’s voice was soothing and wisdom filled. She spoke with such conviction it was hard to resist what sounded like logic.
She tapped into my deepest fear—that the powers and voices of others would overwhelm me, turning me into someone I never wanted to be.
“Why do you need to control everything?”
“Because when I don’t, things happen,” I whispered. My secrets were unraveling at an alarming rate. The very things I’d struggled to hide my entire life were laid on the table for all to see. Wrapping my arms around my waist, I fought the urge to clam up. If I wanted to get out of this place, I had to follow their rules.
“What kind of things?” she asked. I got the feeling she already knew.
“Still, you hide.” Sighing, Frida shook her head.
“What do you want from me?” The teacups on the table rattled. I was tired, confused, and frightened. My control slipped, and the monster in me was already seeping out. Closing my eyes, I balled my hands into fists and gritted my teeth.
Frida clapped. “Wonderful.”
“Wonderful?” I stood from the table. My chair clattered to the ground. “Chaos is not wonderful.” My voice rose. The table vibrated.
“Don’t you see? What you once saw as weakness is strength.”
“This is a way for people to get hurt.” My chest tightened. Images of twisted metal and tiny limbs bent at awkward angles filled my mind. Stomach heaving, I leaned over and clutched my thighs.
“You must let go of the past.”
“No.” I gritted my teeth. “To forget what came before is to repeat it.”
“I said, let go. Not forget. You cannot move forward when you remain shackled to your past. And you’re running out of time.” Frida slapped the table. The loud sound made me flinch. “This is part of who you are. Stop fighting it and take control.”
“How do you control a demon that lives inside of you?”
“Is that what you were told?” Frida asked.
“She’s unnatural. Things happen around that one.” I closed my eyes against the lingering memories of the orphanage. “That one has a touch of the devil.”
“For the first four years of my life, I was in the foster system. I quickly learned the things I did weren’t normal, and to never let people see me do them because they scared people. Other children didn’t move things with their minds. They didn’t make accidents happen when they got upset. Every time I went home and lost control, I spooked my potential families.” I swallowed, ashamed and rattled by the memories of constant rejection.
“So, what happened?”
“It worked. After I learned to control what I could and hide the rest, I was adopted.”
“And you continued like this?”
I ignored the disbelief in her voice. “As best I could. There were always slip-ups. And for a time, rebellion.”
“When I turned twelve, I began to question why I was different and what I could do. So, I started practicing in secret and researching. There were tons of theories out there about the possibility of people with superhuman powers. I never subscribed to one in particular, but each seemed to have a bit of plausible truth.”
“And didn’t it feel good, embracing your abilities?” Frida sat up straight, smiling.
My body tingled as I remembered the rush and confidence that filled me back then. “At first, it did.” I nodded. “I felt invincible and special. I could do things no one else could. The more I worked on my powers, the more I could do. Reading people was a breeze. I avoided the bullying, turned the tables on the cruel.” I smiled at my nativity. I hadn’t realized then that everything came with a price.
“Why did you stop?”
“I got too cocky. I let my abilities go to my head. My guard lowered, and people paid the price.”
Frida frowned. “What do you mean?”
Bubbles burst in my stomach as a wave of nausea rolled over me. I gripped the arms of the chair as the day etched in my brain plowed over me like a runaway freight train. I spent every day of my life trying to make up for the evil I’d done that day. Even as I tried my best to forget it. Some memories time doesn’t blur.
Heat beat down on me as I pushed myself back and forth on the swing. I was waiting for Cassidy to get out of after-school art class.
The all-too-familiar voice set me on edge. Bruce and Ryan were the classic school bullies. Their clothes were always a bit more worn. They had trouble making decent grades and often acted out in class. Their answer was to spread their pain and frustration to others. Cassidy and I were convenient targets because we didn’t try to fit in, and therefore lacked the safety of numbers that came with belonging to a group.
I gripped the chains of the swing tight. The metal bit into my palms until they went numb. I glanced around. The park was full of parents with toddlers, but I knew better than to expect help.
Ignoring them, I kept my eyes trained on the ground. Don’t engage them or show a reaction. That’s what they want.
“Oh, she’s trying to ignore us,” Ryan said.
I watched their black combat boots come into view. Hands jerked me to a stop.
“We don’t like to be ignored.”
Gritting my teeth, I looked up and met Ryan’s arctic blue stare. His thin lips were twisted into a cruel sneer.
“What do you want?” I whispered.
“The same thing we always want … fresh meat. To make your life a living hell,” Bruce replied.
Ryan remained silent, and I squirmed on the rubber seat. Mission accomplished.
“What did you say?” Ryan whispered.
My eyes widened. Shit. Did I say that out loud?
“So, she wants to get a spine?” Bruce asked with a chilling laugh.
“You know what happens to those who oppose us?” Ryan asked with a tilt of his head.
My stomach ached. Torture.
“You think you’re safe because there are all these people around?” Ryan shook his head and leaned in closer. “We don’t forget, and waiting only makes things more fun.”
My anxiety spiked. A future of watching my back, looking over my shoulder, and being on edge daily in the halls of school stretched out in my mind.
“No.” The words escaped before I could hold them back.
“You have no choice in the matter,” Bruce said.
My body shook. For months I’d suffered at their hands: cruel words, spitballs, tripping, and intimidation. I’d cried myself to sleep, and worried myself sick wondering what they’d pull next. Anger swelled up inside of me like floodwaters overrunning a dam. Goosebumps broke out over my flesh. My head snapped up, and my spine straightened. The scent of ozone filled my nostrils as my hair blew back from my face. Ryan and Bruce froze as if they sensed something was about to happen.
“No. More.” Power exploded out of me, a volcanic eruption, destructive and indiscriminate. The sound of warping metal and screams vaguely registered as I lifted the bullies from their feet and flung them across the park. The ground moved beneath my feet. The chains snapped, and I fell into the dirt below me. Pain snapped me from the trance I’d slipped into. It was then I saw the destruction. Men and women screamed as they rushed toward the crumpled play place.
Falling to the side, I revisited my lunch as the horror set in. I’d done this. I can never let this happen again.
“You were a child then,” Frida said.
“Exactly. Imagine the damage I could do now.” Bending, I set the chair up and took my seat with a calmness I no longer felt.
“Or the control you could have,” Frida countered.
“It’s too dangerous.”
“For who?” Frida threw her hands up in the air. “We are the only ones here, and I assure you, you cannot hurt me.”
Her words rang with truth. “You’ll need your abilities..”
“For what? You haven’t told me anything.”
Mirth faded from her eyes. “I have told you what I can. To survive here is to be clever and quick. Do you understand?”
Her eyes pleaded with me, trying to convey a message I’d yet to decode.
“No. I don’t,” I barked. “Because you haven’t told me anything.”
“Your powers are important.” Her voice was low, and she cast anxious glances around. “Polish them. Harness them. Trust them.”
It hit me with sickening certainty. My abilities were somehow tied to the reason I was here—another reason to hate the curse that had marked me since birth. I always knew deep down that my parents had abandoned me because they knew what I would grow up and be able to do.
I gave a slight nod. Relaxing, she leaned back into the chair.
“Today, we begin your training. When I was at my lowest, I discovered my truest gift. You will do the same.” She clapped her hands and stood. “Come.”
I followed her into a courtyard. She snapped her fingers. Three dummies appeared dressed in pink, orange, and yellow peasant dresses with stitched floral details. Their faces were painted to look like skeletons from the Day of the Dead.
I shook my head, lost. “What do you want me to do with them?”
“Defend yourself,” she said gleefully.
The skeletal scarecrows lifted their heads and began to dance. It’s a Tim Burton film come to life. The first two rushed at me, and I stumbled back, still hesitant to use the power I’d fought so hard to contain.
“Fight back. Do you think an enemy would hesitate?” Frida yelled.
A broom handle appeared in the scarecrow’s hand and rapped my knuckles. Crying out, I jumped back. They were brandishing the broom handles like swords. Dodging to the left and right, I evaded the attack. When the second moved in on me from the opposite direction, I was distracted. I caught a broom handle to the side. Pain seared over my flesh. Whack. A blow landed on my back. Fight or flight kicked in. I imagined a ball of energy exploding outward. The scarecrows flew back, landing on their backs.
“Good,” Frida yelled. “Again.”
A sheen of sweat coated my back and ran into my eyes as I reconnected with the energy inside, which I’d always viewed as an enemy. It’d been the inner demon I sought to keep tethered for so long it was painful to tap into. Eyes blurred by tears, I set my feet and focused everything I had on the brightly colored enemies. An image of a burst of light coming through the darkness flashed in my mind. Pushing my anger and frustration behind the blast of energy, I let go. I watched, stunned, when hay and shredded cloth flew into the air as the dummies exploded.
“You’ve just completed your first task,” Frida said softly.
“Our time is done. My friend awaits you on the other side.”
A large tree sprung up from the ground. Light burst through the massive trunk of the oak, forming the outline of a door. The bark swung open.
I stepped through the tree and found myself standing in a parlor. A slender, older woman with dark hair and blue eyes smiled up at me from her chair. Seated at a round, wooden table with a crystal ball in front of her, she looked part fortune teller and part someone’s nice grandma. I hesitated to step into the room. Glancing behind me, I saw the door had disappeared as quickly as it arrived.
“Won’t you join me?” she asked. Her high cheekbones, fuller lips, and large, deep-set eyes conveyed kindness.
Do I have a choice?
“There’s always a choice. But leaving now would be the wrong one for you.”
My eyebrows flew up. Is she a freaking psychic?
“I am psychic. Even if I hadn’t been, your face told me everything I needed to know.”
I took two steps closer, feeling her out. The vibrations coming off her were warm and full of light. “Who are you?”
“Jeane Dixon. Perhaps, you’ve heard of me?” Her hands rested on the crystal ball as if it held all the information she needed.
She’d been a popular psychic and astrologer before my time, known for predicting J.F.K.’s assassination, among other things.
“I have.” I walked toward her and took a seat across the table. “But why are you here?”
“Right now? To help you.” Her eyes pierced me like knives. It’s like she could see through me.
“How do you plan to do that?” I asked skeptically.
“By doing what I do best. Giving you a reading.” She trailed her slim fingers over the glass sphere. “The first thing I want to say is what you have is a gift, not a curse. All of my life, I was accused of dabbling in dark arts and doing things that went against God. It’s hurtful, but I knew that wasn’t the case. God gave me this because I was strong enough to not only handle it but use it as a force of light and love. Once you know your truth, no one can make you doubt yourself.”
“You make it sound so easy.” Bitterness coated my mouth like vinegar, making me purse my lips.
“No, but necessary. You allow them to win when you stunt your growth. This disconnection with yourself is bad for the soul and your future.”
“And all of this is in your crystal ball?”
Jeane fixed me with a stern glare that made me slam my lips together. I knew better than to disrespect an older woman giving me this look. I’d find myself knocked back into next week. Maybe that’s the secret to getting me back to my real life.
She hummed. “The life you’ve been living might have been fulfilling, but it was a temporary fix.”
“Bullshit,” I protested. “It’s all I’ve wanted to do with my life.”
“There are more ways than one to help others, True.”
I never told her my name. Reading about someone’s abilities and being on the receiving end of it was another story. My body felt too tight for my spirit as she took me apart and examined my insides.
“You were born to do greater things. If you embrace your destiny, you’ll help more people than you ever imagined possible.”
“I’m expected to be thankful for something I didn’t choose? And embrace what? My imprisonment? Because that’s truly what this is.”
“Not yet, it isn’t. This is a warm-up, and you’d do well to learn all you can from it.” Her eyes held concern, and her tone was grave.
She’s trying to tell me something. I’m not the only one bound to rules.
“Show me how?”
Her lips curved up into a smile. “That is the right question. You will have to make many choices soon. Never make them in fear. It will betray you each time. What you’re tasked to can’t be done alone. You’re meant to have a team. One you can trust with not only your well-being but your very soul. It won’t be easy. You’ve grown used to being alone, but you weren’t meant to be. The others you’ve met with weren’t right for you. Deep down, you knew it.”
“This isn’t a love reading.” I rolled my eyes.
“Isn’t it?” She arched her brow. “The universe doesn’t run on our time table. It has its own agenda. You have enough heart for what’s to come. Don’t run from the emotions you’ll soon experience. Unity is the key, and you are the grounding force. The anchor and the glue to hold it all together.
“Each of the men coming into your life brings something different.”
“Men?” I squeaked.
“Three.” She held up three fingers.
Lightheaded, I closed my eyes and breathed through my mouth. I’d never been in a serious relationship. How the hell could I handle three men at once? With what time?
“This is insane.”
“What about your trip here hasn’t been?” she asked.
“Why do you have to make sense?” I mumbled.
“I wouldn’t be much help if I didn’t, dear. I see a warrior, fierce and powerful. An intelligent man with passion and insight, and a sensitive soul with hidden explosive power. Together there is nothing you can’t overcome. Even when logic states otherwise. It won’t be easy. Your path is full of confusion, darkness, and lies. The ego must be left behind.”
“Three men and you expect ego to play no part in it?” I said, shaking my head. “Why don’t you ask me to find the lost Dutchmen’s treasure while I’m at it.”
“Have you met him already?” Jeane asked.
“Are you serious?”
“You have seen the things that are possible here.”
“I’m trapped in an episode of X-Files, and I don’t even get David Duchovny as Fox Mulder.”
“Be careful what you wish for.” She glanced up. “It is almost time for you to go. But first, I want you to have this.” Cupping her hands together, she showed me a long, black oval with flecks of rainbow colors encased in a silver setting. “Keep this on you. It’s your talisman. It’ll help you focus your power and guide you.” She cast a worried look around the room. The wind picked up, ruffling her dark hair, and tugging at my dress. “The darkness comes now. Don’t fall prey to it. Remember who you are.”
Coldness settled over the room. The temperature plunged as the air grew heavy. I shivered. A door appeared in the wall and swung open, revealing a pitch-dark abyss.
“The only way out is through,” Jeane yelled over the roaring wind.
Wrapping my arms around my waist, I stood and forced myself to walk toward the gaping emptiness I wanted to run from. Crossing the threshold, I was yanked into the blackness and spun around. I struggled to breathe as the air pressed in around me. My chest screamed as my vision blurred. My head dropped forward, and I landed on the ground in a heap of protesting limbs. Snow cushioned my fall. The cold seeped in through the thin fabric of my dress.
“Get up. We have much to do and not much time.” Flickering flames of the fire crackling in the center of stones distorted my vision.
I looked over the flames and fell into the dead-eyed gaze of a large man with a scruffy beard, mustache, and all-black clothing. His dark hair thinned at the top, and his frown was severe. Contempt and impatience rolled off him in thick waves. I’d recognize him anywhere after my obsession with the missing Russian royal family. Grigori Rasputin, the man who wouldn’t die. I crab-walked back, desperate to be away from the evil being in front of me. His lips spread into a disarming smile.
“One must always have darkness to balance out the light.”
“I don’t want to learn anything from you.”
“Don’t be so sure.” His heavily accented words sounded like a threat. “Power is neither good nor bad. Like with magick, intention decides that.”
I don’t trust his words. He was notorious for conning others into doing what he wanted. I refused to be another victim. Gaining my feet, I struck a defensive pose, waiting for his attack.
“You’re frightened. That means at least you have some intelligence. Better than some who come through here. I have no stake in your battle, but I do in your success. I do not lose, and if you are learning from me, you will win.”
“Is that what your visions tell you?” I asked snarkily.
“No. This is what I am telling you. I demand everything you have and then more. This is how you become invincible.” He tapped his chest with his fist. “Did you see how many it took to down me? And even then, it was nature. The elements that claimed me because it was my time.”
I couldn’t say if he was deluded or that powerful. But I did know he was terrifying. I felt like a soldier tossed into basic training.
“You must leave the constraints of morality, right, and wrong behind.”
“So I can end up like you?”
“No, to reach your full potential. Only you know what’s best for you. These rules contain and control.” He walked with his hands behind his back, pacing back and forth.
“And to protect and guide.”
“Do you believe in those in power so blindly?” he challenged me.
“Good. I can work with this.”
I was a bug under a microscope as he studied me.
“To survive, you will be forced to do things that frighten you. You’ll question who you are and what you believe. None of it matters as long as you come out on top. This is an ugly long game. You have to be prepared to fight dirty because your opponents will.”
Howls sounded in the background.
“Run, Kroshka. Run, and whatever you do, don’t get caught.” His eyes glowed red, and his form twisted. Snaps and crackles broke the stillness of the night as his form shifted.
I didn’t wait to see what he became as I turned and ran. I slipped on the snow, straining to stay on my feet. The full moon highlighted the massive maze in the distance. The thud of a creature giving chase blended with heavy breathing.
Don’t look behind you. Don’t look behind you. I stumbled. Shit. I refused to become a horror movie cliché. Sliding into the opening, I was pulled to the left. Trusting my gut, I plunged onto the overgrown path. Thin brambles whipped my face. I threw up my arms to block them. Thorns snagged my hair. I lunged forward, crying out as I left strands of my hair behind. I hit a patch of ice and slid into the wall. My head slammed into the unforgiving cold foliage that felt like a brick wall.
Pain exploded on the right side of my face. Disoriented, I came to an opening with three different entry points, and tried to choose an option. A howl froze the blood in my veins. I spun to see a large, black wolf with glowing red eyes. Panicked, I used my powers to toss it back into the darkness and darted to the left.
Hands grabbed my arms and pulled me through a hedge. A large hand clapped over my mouth, and I was pulled back against a warm body.
“Shhh,” a voice whispered in my ear.
The necklace around my neck warmed, and a high-pitched squeal filled my ears.
An injured whimper came from the other side of the hedges. The hand fell away from my mouth and I bite my tongue. Drawing attention to our position by struggling would bring a whole other set of problems. One on one I might be able to take the stranger my body was reacting to. My flesh heated, and my muscles tensed for different reasons all together as his muscles flexed against me. He was taller than me by several inches and fit without being bulky.
“They don’t like the sound,” The masculine voice was smooth as butter melting on top of a biscuit fresh out of the oven. I longed to turn around and see him, but I didn’t dare move yet.
“What is that sound?”
“I don’t know. But I’m grateful for it. I’ve never been one to look a gift horse in the mouth and I’ve been lost in this maze for days and I figured out, they don’t seem to sense me when I’m here.”
The oppressive feeling of evil lifted, and I jerk away from the man who smells like leather bound books and sunshine.
“Sorry about that.” He shoved his hand into the pockets of his black skinny jeans and I tried no to drool. Thick dark brows frame soulful upturned dark eyes. His thin lips are twisted into a wry expression that made him appear more harmless than I first imagined him to be. “Not the best first impression.” He cleared his throat.
“No,” I agree. His dark button-up shirt has been rolled up to the elbows. Why does that make a man twice as hot? “My names Elijah Ramirez. English Professor and cast member of this new season of Lost.”
I snickered. “True Osborne. Also, a reluctant new cast member and Non-Profit organizer.”
His face fell and his shoulders slumped. “I’m guessing you don’t know much more than I do about how we got here or where here is.”
“No.” I shook my head. “I’ve only been here a few days.”
“I think I’ve been here a couple of months. I’m not sure how time moves.”
Can I trust him? He could be lying. A strange warmth formed in my chest. My instincts told me, yes. Remembering how swiftly Rasputin turned on me, I cast my rules to the side. I mentally reached over to skim his surface thoughts. My jaw dropped. Blessed silence greeted me. It’s the one thing I’ve always wanted to happen with an attractive man occuring at the worst possible time. This truly is hell.
“What is that?”
Did he feel me? “What?” I asked, nervously.
He gestured toward my chest. I peered down and find the necklace between my breasts shining brightly. A strange symbol appeared on the once smooth stone. A cross between an x with a longer bottom line and a sideways cross, it was foreign to me. “It looks like a rune.”
I traced the symbol with my index finger and know instantly it has something to do with the dark-haired man in front of me. It’s a sign I can trust him.
“What do you know about runes?”
“Not much. Origin wise they’re an old Germanic alphabet, often used in magical practices.”
“How did you get here?”
“One minute I was grading term papers, and the next I nodded off, and woke up somewhere completely different.”
“Who did you meet?” I asked.
“Albert Einstein if you can believe it.”
“And he didn’t know the way out?” I ask stunned.
He shook his head. “He didn’t.”
“If a man a million times smarter than the rest of s doesn’t know, what chance do we stand?” I raked my fingers through my wild, tangled hair and grimaced when they caught on knots.
“He did say it’s different for each person,” Elijah said gently. “You’re the first person I’ve seen like me, so that must mean something.”
“Or we’re dead and haven’t realized it yet.” I muttered.
His olive toned skin paled. “I’ve thought of that many times.”
“I don’t think this is that. Just a gut feeling I’ve got.” He shrugged.
“Perfect. It’s the blind leading the blind in a maze straight out of The Shining.”
“Can I see that necklace?” he asked, stepping closer. I hold it out to him and he traces the rune. A jolt of electricity raced up my spine. The bottom dropped out of my stomach and below my feet. His strong arms wrapped around me, pressing me into him as we pitched toward parts unknown.
We landed in a tangle of limbs on a soft surface. My hands are fisted around his shirt. I’m not about to move when the world is still wavy like heat haze coming up from hot blacktop. It has nothing to do with the way his big hands are warming the small of my back as he holds me securely to him.
“Are you okay?” he asked
“I think so.”
The smacking of palm against palms draws our attention to the left where an androgynous being with a slender frame, angular face, and short cropped white-blonde hair applauds.
“Bravo. A dramatic finish in the nick of time, might I add.” Amusement colored the ( description) voice coming from cupids bow lips. I sat up and find myself straddling him. Heat fills my cheeks as I clamber off him. Jaw clenching, he rose, and stepped in front of me.
“Who are you?”
“You’re best chance at finding your way out of this mad house. So, redirect your anger. I’m merely a guide to help you through your next phase.”
Elijah and I exchanged a skeptical look.
“I’m Dio.” They snapped their fingers and a manilla file appeared in their hand. “And this is your next test. Congratulations, you’ve made it to your first mission.”
“First,” we yelped.
“The rest was just a warm up.”
“This isn’t a game.” Elijah’s frosty tone could freeze lave.
“That’s exactly what It is. One you want to win. Because losing won’t end well for either of you.”
“Why are we here?” I blurted, sick of riddles.
“That’s for you to discover. A word of advice though? Worry about surviving. I’ll give you a clue. This is a game of strategy. Use your— skills to your advantage and work together to solve the cases you’ll be given.
“Cases?” Elijah asked evenly. It was all too easy to see him in front of a class in a pair of slacks and an oxford as the professor in him came out.
Dio waved the manilla folder. “Here’s your first. Should you choose to accept.”
“And if we don’t?” I asked.
Dio nodded up. I tilted my head back and saw a gaping black hole. Chills covered my skin.
“We’ll take the first option,” I said.
“Wise.” A spotlight appeared, highlighting a staircase that lead to nowhere.
Black watches appeared on our wrists. A red circle rested in the corner of the screen. “That circle is your count down. When you’ve reached your destination, the clock starts. You’ll find everything you need. Learn your roles. Live by them and focus on solving as many cases as you I’ll give you an evening to get settled and tomorrow bright and early, the work begins.”
His fingers laced in mine, and we climbed the stairs, side by side. Suddenly, I wasn’t alone in this madness. Adversity makes strange bedfellows, and right now, this man was the only thing shining a ray of hope in the darkness. The first thing to come from the same world I did, he represented the ability to get back. They wanted us together. Once I figured out why, I’d be one step closer to escape. If they could bring us both here, logically stated, we could do the reverse. The stairs played games. Each row we gained took us further away from where we started, but nowhere closer to a destination. The darkness grew more intense, chasing away the lingering glow that came from below as we entered a strange new in-between.
“This must be what it feels like at the bottom of the ocean,” Elijah said softly. “Without light, it’d be impossible to know which way was up or what time of day it was.”
“And the silence,” I said. The stillness spooked me. There was an oppressive weight just beyond the safety of our stairs.
“I feel like we’re being watched,” he whispered.
“We probably are.” I stepped closer, soaking in his warmth. “Why do you think they put us together?”
“I don’t know. But I think we need to figure it out. I was trying to think of what we might have in common.”
“On the surface? We’re both brunettes with dark eyes.” The physical similarities felt flimsy and insignificant. Even aliens returned their victims back where they found them. This would be unlike any extraterrestrial encounter I read about.
He hummed. “Do you teach?”
“No.” I shook my head.
“We should test a theory.”
“What theory?” I asked.
His hand wrapped around my hip, and he stopped.
“What are you doing?” I glanced around nervously.
“Seeing what happens if we stop obeying.”
My stomach flipped, and I shifted my weight. I sniffed. “Do you smell that? It’s like the concrete when it rains.”
“I do.” The smell intensified, turning earthier like freshly turned dirt. Elijah jerked.
Pressure on my back made me flinch. “Oh, my God.” Fingers tightened around my wrist. I jerked away.
“You feel it too?”
“Yes. What the hell is that?” I shook my arms away, trying to rid myself of the tingling sensations left behind. I search the darkness and balk at the shapes forming. Darker than the blackness surrounding us, shapes appeared one-hundred yards away. Vaguely humanoid, they resembled men in long coats, and the one in the front who had the authority of a leader wore a hat. There were no faces, just blank spaces. The effect proved to be unsettling. A menacing air emanated from them. I took a step back, and Elijah pulled me to his hip.
“Hat man,” Elijah said.
“He’s a shadow man, many people have encountered frequently. It’s never a good interaction, and this is a whole gang of them.”
Snippets from paranormal podcasts and television shows rushed into my brain. I’d heard of the otherworldly beings, but I’d never seen one personally. I could’ve done without the experience. The shadow people moved closer, gliding instead of walking.
“We can’t stay here. Whatever we’re going toward is better than this.”
“Maybe we’re in their territory.” Being between dimensions might explain this strange place.
“We’re not waiting to find out either way. One three, we run. One. Two. Three.”
Taking the lead, he rushed up the stairs, like a gazelle, and I followed. Tripping up the stairs, I struggled to keep up with his long-legged stride as he half pulled me along behind him. The air lightened, and the darkness began to fade. A hazy blue glow spread over the stairs, lighting our way. The urgency faded, but we never stopped moving. A neon blue rectangular outline appeared.
“This must be the exit.”
“What if it isn’t?” I grabbed his arm with both hands. We turned to see the shadowy beings still trailing behind us.
“At this point, I trust Dio more than I do them.” He nodded his head toward the creeping creatures. A few thick strands fell across his forehead, lessening his stern countenance. He had a strong jaw, square chin, and quiet intensity.
“The lesser of two evils.” My voice wavered.
“Yes, If we flee, we can fight another day.” He squeezed my hand.
“Okay.” Turning toward the light, we ran the rest of the stairs. Passing through the space inside the neon rectangle was like jumping into a semi-frozen lake. The shock earned a scream lost to the nothingness that flowed around me. The one grounding thing was the feel of Elijah’s hand, holding on tightly to mine as the world spins out of control.
Hazy and disoriented, I blinked to clear my foggy vision.
I turned my head to see Elijah beside me.
“Finally, you’re waking up.”
“How long was I out?” I swallowed to moisten my dry mouth.
“Thirty minutes? I don’t know how long I was out, though.”
I propped up on my elbows. “Where’s here?”
Elijah shook his head. Pushing into a sitting position, I studied the area. We were in the center of a massive dark wood four-poster bed with a canopy. Bookshelves lined the walls along with a matching dresser and desk in the corner near a window. Swinging my legs over the side of the bed, I stood and walked over to the window. A fat harvest moon reflected on the lake that stretched out from a dock down from the house. Snow-covered mountains rested like majestic guardians in the distance.
“Beautiful.” Elijah’s breath stirred tendrils of my hair by my forehead.
“Yes.” He agreed with a nod. In the well light bedroom, I can’t deny the masculine beauty he has. Under different circumstances, I’d be more than happy to be stranded in the mountains with this beautiful man. His lower lip was slightly fuller than his top, and I could think of a dozen wicked ways to pass the time. I licked my lips and cursed my dating drought. Now wasn’t the time to reminisce on the last time I got laid.
“We should explore.”
“What?” I blinked.
“The house. We should explore it.”
“Oh. Right.” I cleared my throat and ignored his knowing smirk.
“The first thing I want to do is look for clothing. I’m tired of this outfit.”
“You’re telling me.” I fluff up the skirt of my dress. “I’d like to burn this.”
“That’d be a tragedy. It’s rather fetching on you.”
Heat flooded my cheeks. “Thank you. It was for a gala for work.”
“Won’t your boyfriend be worried about you by now?” Turning his body, he leaned against the window and looked down at me.
“He might if I had one. What will your girlfriend say?” I peered up at him through my lashes. Had his brown eyes darkened and dilated?
“Nothing. Because she doesn’t exist.” He leaned in closer, and I inhaled the woodsy scent I’d come to associate with him.
“I guess that’s good then.”
“Is it?” His breath caressed my lips.
“Yes.” I bit my lower lip.
“Why’s that?” His voice deepened.
“No one’s worrying about us.”
“Hmm. Is that the only reason?”
My breasts swelled as my nipples strained against my lacy bra.
“We should fix that.” After our tense encounters, it’d be so easy to lose myself in him. His lips brushed mine. The necklace around my neck heated up. I flinched away, stunned.
“What? Did I read that wrong?”
“No?” I moved back and grabbed my necklace. “I just. Think it might not be the best idea right now.”
“You’re right.” He ran a hand through his hair. “We just went through a lot. Let’s focus on the house.” Logically I knew I’d made the smartest choice, but I was already regretting it.
I’d never been the type of man to let my hormones rule me, but everything is different with True. Maybe it’s the fact that she’s the first living being I’ve encountered since I was dumped into this Upside Down place. She’s average height with a slender build, and thick dark hair I wanted to bury my fingers into to test is softness. But the thing that gets me most is the intelligence in her words the kindness in her eyes, and the fire I’ve witnessed as we navigated our way through the labyrinth. It was never a question of if we’d stay together. She couldn’t get rid of me if she tried.
We were placed together for a reason, and I intend to get to the bottom of why. It might be our only chance at escaping. I glanced down at the clock on my wrist. The circle is still complete for now. My chest tightened as my anxiety increased. I had more questions than answers. How fast would the time go? Did the clock continue to run while we were asleep? What time frame were we working within? As an analytic type, I preferred to have a plan of attack and a tentative schedule. Perhaps it was the professor in me.
This entire experience rattld me, but now I had things to focus my attention on directly. I peered across the room into the attached bathroom where she retreated for a shower. The dressers were full of clothing. Leaning back against the headboard,I crossed my ankles, and picked up the manilla envelope and opened it.
You will be posing as True and Elijah Coventry, a married couple who specialize in Paranormal Science. Yo will solve the cases no one else can’t. The house has everything you’ll need: food, clothing, internet access, and a library to rival those in some of the top colleges. You will communicate with yoru clients over the internet. The access to the backyard is unlimited, but leaving is forbidden.
I hadn’t noticed a car outside, and the area was secluded. Where would we go? Not trying to explore would make me a sheep. I’d never been that. Taking a calculated rist was one of the first things on my to-do list. Right after putting True at ease. The spark between us was instaneous and intense, unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. I’d been told by many exs they couldn’t handle my reserved nature. I’d come to think of it as a personal flaw. With True it hadn’t been an issue.
I shifted my weight as I listened to the steady thrum of the water in the shower and imagined her under the spray. Clearing my throat, I forced my attention back to the briefing. The staircase in the woods has taken many people and it almost took me. If no one does anything, it’ll take many more. The first two lines hooked me. The description of a crumbling set of stone stairs in the middle of the woods felt wrong. The gray stone sounded like that of buildings created in the colonial times.
I was a disbeliever before this experience. The Black Haven woods are known for the occasional missing hiker. But that’s to be expected I any forested area this big. Not everyone is knowledgeable or as safe as they should be. I ignored my friends advice to ignore the steps, and I climbed them. It was anticlimactic. There were no strange beings waitd on the otherside, and I didn’t feel strange. I was disappointed when I reached the top of the crumbled stairway and saw nothing more than the woods. I retraced my steps, and when I reached the bottom it was dark outside, and my friends were gone.
The door opened, and I turned to look at True. Her skin was flushed from the shower and her dark hair waved around her face and feel around her shoulders. She wore a gray distressed band tnak top and a pair of jean shorts that hugged her curves and stopped midthigh. My eyes trailed down her thigh thighs and shapely calves to the pretty feet with soft pink polished toes.
“Sorry I took so long. There should be enough hot water left over for you.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Seeing you like this makes me need a cold shower anyways.
“What did you find out?” she asked.
“We’re posing as a married couple who researches paranormal occurences. Mr. and Mrs. Coventry are quite good at their job, and eccentric enough to work from home.”
“What?” She crossed the room in quick strides that highlighted her legs. I licked my lips and averted my gaze.
“Our first case involves a staircase in the woods. I didn’t get to read all of it, but it made me think of the way we arrived here.” I closed the folder and handed it to her.
“That was all?”
“The house will provide everhting we need, and the only rule is to not leave.”
“Hell with that,” she muttured.
I smirked. “My thoughts exactly. We have time to test those limitations.”
“I like the way you think, Elijah.”
“I’d hope so , Darling. You did marry me after all.”
“And so we begin the charade.” She sighed.
“I’m not so bad.” I slipped from the bed and moved closer, inhaling her clean scent. “You might find you like having me as your spouse.”
She tilted her head back and her eyes dilated. My pants grew tight in response to her arousal. She felt the attraction too. Her hand rested on my chest. “Elijah,” she said shakily. I brushed the back of my fingers across her soft face. “I’m going to take my turn in the bathroom.” I stepped away. When I took her, she’d be just as eager as me.