Read Challenge Online

Authors: Montgomery Mahaffey

Tags: #romance, #erotica, #passion, #dark fantasy, #fairy tale, #fable

Challenge (3 page)


I loathe cotillions,” he
muttered.

The Wanderer smiled. This was the youngest
Patron he’d ever seen, only a few years older than he. The Patron
was tall and powerfully built with long arms and broad shoulders.
He must have forgotten his gloves, or perhaps he didn’t care to
wear them. His bare hands were as muscular and calloused as a
farmer’s. This Patron was rugged, lacking the fleshiness that
usually contorted the features of noblemen. When he went up the
steps, the Wanderer knew he should follow. Getting out of the cold
was a relief, but he was overwhelmed as soon as they entered the
villa.

The Wanderer caught the scents of cinnamon
and clove burning from the lamps. He’d never been to a masquerade
before, except through the Bard’s stories. Staring down the cascade
of creamy stone steps, this Solstice Ball surpassed anything he had
ever imagined.

Gentlemen covered their hair with silver
wigs; they wore stark white shirts with dress breeches and coats in
somber black. For all their fancy dress, the men faded next to the
women. The ladies pranced in gowns of deep jewel tones, moving with
sluggish ease, holding their skirts with white-gloved hands. The
swell of breasts rose from the mounds of silk and velvet, yet they
were ghostly from the powder dusting their décolletage, their
necks, and their faces. Their lips were stained red, their hair
piled high on their heads.

The musicians strung the first notes of the
song to prepare the guests for the next dance. The Wanderer was
amused when several women discovered the handsome young Patron at
the top of the stairs. They were slow to look away, their lashes
fluttering - inviting him to ask for them to dance. But he glanced
at the Patron and saw from the expression on his face that he was
blind to them. The Wanderer followed his gaze and immediately
understood why.

He had known many women in his travels
around the world. All of them were lovely in their own right. All
of them had a grace and allure that was unique to women. He admired
most he had known, and even loved a few. But this was the most
beautiful girl he had ever seen.

The Wanderer almost wondered if she was
human. Her face implied a world beyond the mists into shadows and
dreams. Her bones were elongated; the angle of her cheeks was stark
beneath her tilted blue eyes, and in line with her jaw slanted from
her ears to the point of her chin. Her high forehead was teased
with the arched brows of a coquette, her nose was long and upturned
at the tip, and her lips were curved in the smirk of an imp. Her
skin was luminous, naked of powder. Her pale blond hair was
gathered in lace where her neck rose from her shoulders.

Her gown was airy, bringing to mind the
springtime courtship between sun and water. In the shimmers of blue
and green and flashes of quicksilver, the Wanderer saw a creek
reflecting grasses and hints of morning light. The girl seemed to
glide across the floor when she hurried to her place in line, her
skirts slithering around her hips and legs.

Even her dancing was liquid grace. When the
music started, her arms arced from the sway of her body and her
gown made eddies around her waist before swirling away. There was
deliverance in her eyes that betrayed the ecstasy of a woman deep
inside herself.

The Wanderer followed the Patron to the hall
and they edged the mass of twirling couples. With the ladies
holding their skirts high and fanning their perfumes around them,
it was difficult to breathe. But the Patron never lost sight of
that face.

The Wanderer noticed a pink flush across her
cheeks. The girl sensed she was being watched. At first, she didn’t
seem troubled by that; she was more occupied with keeping her feet
safe from the oafish dancing of her partner. But the Patron kept up
his vigilance, and the blush deepened and her features grew tight.
Finally, the dance was over. The girl curtseyed to her partner, and
spun around to face the stranger who had been staring at her for
the last quarter hour.

The Wanderer flinched in the face of her
fury and braced himself for the onslaught of scorn. Instead, he was
relieved to see her wrath dissipate when she saw her admirer. In
less than a moment, her color returned to its porcelain glow and
she smiled. But the Patron stood paralyzed, his mouth opening and
closing but not sounding a word. The girl smiled even wider. There
was challenge gleaming in her pale blue eyes, a challenge she
expected her suitor to meet.


Come on, Friend,” the
Wanderer murmured. “You can do this.”

As if he could hear him, the Patron pulled
upright, proving his instinct to conquer was stronger than his
fear. He walked tall when he approached that beautiful girl, his
gait at leisure.

 

****

From the abyss between sleep and
consciousness, he heard the humming growl. He was confused by the
sound until the heavy cloth collapsed, and he woke up with the
burden of his tent upon him. Flailing through the canvas, the
Wanderer pushed his head and shoulders through the flap into a
whirlwind of dazzling colors.


Hey!” he shouted. “What
are you doing?”

His heart pounded and the Wanderer was
suddenly dizzy. He squeezed his eyes shut until the feeling
passed.

“How strange. I was about to ask you the
same thing.”

The Wanderer recognized her voice. The girl
he followed into No Man’s Land had finally come awake, and she was
now standing over him with one hand wrapped around her necklace. He
swallowed hard. She had the coldest blue eyes he’d ever seen. She
opened her palm and dropped a crystal in the folds of her shirt.
Her glare seared into him.

“So what are you doing here?” she asked.

The Wanderer felt foolish on his knees with
his tent collapsed around him. The girl’s presence was unnerving.
Even though she was angry, she made his flesh come alive as soon as
he saw her.


Making myself at home,”
he said, stepping out of the heap. “Same as you.”

He noticed that she was dressed like him, in
a loose shirt and pants, but she also wore a holster, a small pouch
slung around the belt at her left hip, and a pistol and dagger held
in sheaths on her right. The Wanderer glanced at her face and saw
the corners of her mouth twitching. She might be an adventurer, but
not of his kind.


I don’t have anything
worth stealing,” he said.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” she replied.
“Maybe you should get going.”

The Wanderer sighed. The thought of packing
up was exhausting. If he complied, he would be alone.

“I didn’t mean to scare you…” he said,
trailing off. The girl raised her brows. “But I saw you going into
the woods the other day and—”

“Yeah, I saw you too,” she interrupted. “Did
I ask you to come with me?”

“No, but I thought we’d make good
company.”

“Well you were wrong.”

The Wanderer hesitated. He had never met
anybody in his life who disliked him. Confronted with somebody who
did, he couldn’t think of anything to say. Then he remembered she
addressed him as a wanderer, not a vagabond. He noticed that the
girl faced him directly and met his eye with a steady gaze. The way
she talked also belied animosity— the low pitch and desultory
rhythm of her speech pleased him. If anything, the girl acted
somewhat bored. He saw tension in the arms crossing her chest. Her
muscle twitched in her jaw. He sensed she struggled to maintain her
detached poise.

“Can’t we just start over?”

“No,” she snapped. “You need to get out of
here.”

The Wanderer shook his head, wondering if he
was in another dream. But he looked again to see the girl’s
demeanor was unchanged, and her eyes stared right through him.

“Why are you being like this?”


Because I have no use for
wanderers. Now move along.”

She turned and headed for her tent. The
Wanderer stared at her back, too stunned to move for a moment. For
weeks, ostracism chiseled at his spirit, but she was an outsider
the same as he, and her dismissal birthed a fury he never knew he
had. Before he knew what he was doing, he caught up with the girl
and swiveled her around to face him.


I’d like to ask you
something,” the Wanderer said. “Do you own these woods?”


Let go of me.”

The calm in her voice made the hairs rise on
the back of his neck. Then he remembered the horse and rider,
backlit by the sun and running across the ridge before turning
towards No Man’s Land.


You crossed the border
through the woods, didn’t you?”

The girl said nothing, but her pupils
narrowed.


I saw someone disappear
in the trees,” he continued. “That was you, wasn’t it?”

“Are you threatening me, Wanderer?”

She spoke softly, yet there was no mistaking
the menace in her tone. The Wanderer didn’t care, driven as he was
by a wrath of his own.


I don’t want the Lawmen
any more than you do,” he said. “But you can’t tell me whether I
can stay or go.”

He released the girl and made his way back
to his tent.


You’re a fool,
Wanderer.”

The air hissed when she spoke. The Wanderer
was pleased to know he had shaken her composure. But her venom gave
him pause. His spine heated where her eyes burned into him and he
had to force himself to focus on the fallen heap. He heard her
running and his ears prickled. The muffled squeal of leather
followed, then the click of her tongue. The ground quivered when a
giant stallion was spurred to action. The pounding of its hooves
resonated in the Wanderer’s feet for what seemed a long time after
the girl had gone.

 

Chapter Two

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Her hostility was relentless.

When the Wanderer woke up in the morning, he
was relieved to find his tent undisturbed. He heard the girl moving
around the site, but doubted she was in a better humor. He lay
inside his tent until the grating of metal on metal irritated him
enough to get up. When he came outside, he was blinded again from
the piercing rays of light. The girl was sharpening her dagger, and
the blade caught glimpses of sun as she swept it along a rod.

Two slain rabbits were draped across her
lap. She must have gotten up before dawn to hunt. Finally, the
grating that worked on the Wanderer’s nerves stopped. The girl
tested the edge of the blade, satisfied that it was sharp enough,
and then she set to work on the rabbits, pulling their hides off
with sure strokes of the dagger. The Wanderer watched, mesmerized.
He’d never met a woman who could hunt before, and her skill made it
clear that she was very comfortable with it. After a few minutes,
the Wanderer saw the girl’s stare riveted on him while the blade of
her knife carved meat from bone.

The hairs prickled on the back of his neck
and he averted his gaze. The Wanderer ignored her the best he could
and went to the fire pit. He was surprised to find some
acknowledgement of his presence in the camp. The girl had staked
two forked branches on either side, leaving the iron weave for him
to cook upon. By the time he got the fire going, she was ready.
Pieces of rabbit were impaled along a spit she’d carved from a
thick branch and set between the prongs. Without thinking, the
Wanderer put his hash beneath the meat to catch its drippings. But
the girl glared at him and pulled her spit away until he moved his
skillet to the side of the fire. Once their food was done, the
Wanderer hoped for a trade. So ignoring her previous slight, he
offered his hash.


Do you want try some of
mine? It would go well with the rabbit.”

The girl flicked her eyes between him and
the skillet, then walked away and settled down at the base of a
large tree. She took her time with the rabbits. She tore through
the tender meat with her thick teeth and chewed slowly. She even
licked her fingers when she was done. Although the girl didn’t
glance his way, the Wanderer suspected her exaggerated manner was a
performance meant for him. Her piece of theater made him so angry
he had to wait until she left before he could eat. By then, his
hash had gone cold.

The Wanderer was more confused than
affronted by the girl’s deliberate antagonism. As the days passed,
he was determined to ease the tension between them.


Your accent is
unusual.”

The morning was warm. Indian summer. The
girl was hanging clothes she had just washed in the creek. She
stood in profile to the Wanderer. He was surprised how refined she
looked from this angle. Her features had none of the raw
primitivism she showed when she faced him directly. To invite
conversation, the Wanderer kept his tone light. He waited for the
girl to turn, but she continued with her chore.


I can tell we’re from the
same country,” he continued. “I’m usually pretty good at figuring
out the region people are from by how they talk, but I can’t place
yours. What parts did you grow up in?”

Finally, the girl looked his way and cocked
one brow. Her savage features were almost shocking after the
delicacy of her profile. The expression in her eyes was dismissive.
After peering at him for a moment, the girl turned her back.

A few days later, the Wanderer woke up to
the rhythmic sounds of a dull thump, followed by the rustle and
crunch of leaves underfoot, a soft whistling of air, then another
dull thump, the crunch and rustle of leaves, then another whishing
through the air. This continued. The Wanderer sighed. By the glow
of light against the tent’s canvas, he could tell the sun was just
reaching over the horizon. The air was crisp, almost cold, and it
was perfect for a deep slumber that could have lasted until
mid-morning. But his neighbor was awake, and she made enough of a
disturbance to keep him from going back to sleep.

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