Lace falls across my face. It’s yellowed over the years and the smell that clings to it is musty. Old. But it’s my mother’s. The one she wore on her wedding day.
Baby’s breath and discarded lilies litter the stone floor as the woman grumbles behind me. She’s annoyed at having to work with the old veil when a brand new, prettier one sits unused in its box. I move my foot, crush the delicate baby’s breath, impaling the fallen petal of a pale pink lily with my heel.
Funeral flowers for a wedding. An omen.
Not that I need one.
The stink of them turns my stomach. This isn’t how I imagined my wedding day.
“Finished,” the woman announces.
I stand, the petal sticking to my heel. I don’t care. I look up to meet my reflection in the mirror.
“He won’t like the veil,” she says. She’s a blur beside me.
I shift my gaze, letting my eyes focus on her. She’s plump and short and has a wart on the side of her face with a thick black hair growing out of it. Don’t judge a book by its cover has nothing on this one. She is as much a bitch inside as she looks on the outside.
“I guess he’ll have to get over it.”
“You should wear the one he sent.”
I don’t bother to answer her, although I agree. The veil was a gift from my brothers.
No, not a gift.
Just another cruelty to make me wear my mother’s veil for this sham wedding.
She snorts, turns to gather up the dress, the keys jangling on her belt. I could take them. Overpower her. That part would be easy. It’s the men with the guns outside the door who’d be the problem.
Noisy footsteps on the hundred stairs announce the approach of soldiers to my tower room.
A tower. They locked me in a fucking tower. My own fucking brothers.
From the sound of things, they’re expecting me to put up a fight. They’ll take me kicking and screaming if I do. Besides, I know better than to waste my energy on them. I’ll need it after. For the wedding night.
A man says something, another one laughs, just before I hear a loud crash, like something smashing hard against the wall.
It’s then that it happens. Gunfire explodes just beyond my room. A bullet splinters its way through the thick wooden door and shatters the mirror, breaking my reflection into a thousand pieces, sending me backward into the stone wall.
The woman with the wart screams.
I right myself. Touching the back of my head with one hand, I somehow still manage to keep hold of the lilies. Suddenly, the door is kicked in, banging against the wall as heavily armed men in military fatigues raid my room. A cloud of smoke follows behind them, seeping into my circular tower.
They fan out, a dozen of them and I don’t recognize a single one. These aren’t my brothers’ men.
The woman is on the floor blubbering something, sobbing.
I just stare at the door as another set of footsteps approach, quieter now. This one isn’t in a hurry. And I know the instant he steps into my line of vision that he’s in charge.
He’s the one to worry about. The only one who’s masked.
He stops just inside the room, surveys it, eyeing every soldier, every stone, every cobweb. And when deep blue eyes land on me, a weight drops in my belly, a hundred-pound cement block.
The woman with the keys stands, tripping over her words as she walks toward him. He looks down at her like he’s irritated, and she doesn’t get far. An echo of bullets shuts her down, splattering blood like paint on my neck, my face. The shots put her back on the floor.
I don’t spare her a glance. I don’t need to, to know she’s dead.
The man’s eyes return to mine. They narrow. And when he takes a step toward me, I take one back, knocking the chair behind me to the floor, panicking then. Animated then.
I turn to run but see a dozen sets of eyes staring back at me. The masked intruder, the biggest of them all, blocks the only exit. I can’t even jump from the window. They’re barred. Suicide was never an option, not for my brothers. They needed me.
But something’s gone wrong.
And before I can decide what to do, before I can make up my mind to try to charge him, to risk bullets putting me down like they did the woman on the floor, he’s got my wrist in his right hand and he’s squeezing it.
My hand opens. Flowers scatter to the floor. I watch them, then watch him lift my hand to his face. His thumb comes to my ring finger where the hideous diamond catches the waning sun. For a moment I think he’s going to break my finger. But he twists and forces it off. It’s tight but he manages. He pockets the ring then shifts his gaze to mine again.
I swallow hard.
He cocks his head to the side, one hand still locked around my wrist. He spins me around.
I scream as he jerks me to him, his body a solid wall at my back.
He releases my wrist and bands his arm beneath my breasts. With the other, he pushes the veil off my neck, his hand rough against my skin, fingers digging, bruising. I think he’s going to snap my neck. One quick twist is all it would take. He’s a fucking giant.
But he doesn’t.
Instead, the moment I turn my face up to his, he squeezes and instantly, my knees give out. My arms drop uselessly to my sides. He shifts his grip and as I slip, he lifts me up, hauling me over his shoulder, turning the room upside down before it goes black.
Releasing February 23