A KNIGHT TO REMEMBER – First Three Chapters!

The main characters in yesterday’s release, A Knight to Remember, are Holly, the book-obsessed librarian, and the warrior woman Virago. Today I wanted to share the first three chapters of my novel, and photos of what the characters look like. Virago’s is obvious, because she’s on the front cover! 🙂

To those of you who have bought the book already–you’re wonderful, and I appreciate it so much! To those of you who haven’t yet, I hope you enjoy the first three chapters, and that they entice you into Holly and Virago’s story. 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

Read the first full three chapters of A Knight to Remember below:

Chapter 1:   The Beginning of the End

 

Everyone but me loves a Renaissance Festival.

I mean, how can I not, right?  At the Ren Faire, you can get gigantic turkey legs on sticks, watch “wenches” wrestling in the mud while yelling medieval insults at each other and see gigantic, gorgeous horses bedecked in colorful armor carrying jousting knights (who also yell medieval insults at each other, but are usually a little less covered in mud).  I mean, I know this might not sound like everyone’s cup of tea, but it was certainly mine.

I used to look forward to July more than any other time of the year, because July was when the Knights of Valor Festival would pull up in its creaking, rusted train cars and set up in a little local dog park on the edge of Boston for a week.  I’d get all dressed in traditional wench wear (which basically means that my chest was almost entirely visible in my daringly low cut white “wench blouse”), spend all of my money on overpriced fried food and hand-made artisanal soap, yell “huzzah!” approximately eighty thousand times, and generally be the happiest person in the world.

But this was all before Nicole.  Or “BN,” as Carly loves to put it.

I sigh as we pull into the parking lot that has been set up on the very edge of the dog park.  Before us spreads out the chaotic brightly colored tents of the festival.  I can already see one of the large horses—bedecked in purple and gold ribbons dangling from his halter—being shoed by a traditional blacksmith behind one of the largest tents, and the scent of turkey legs is already pumping in through the car vents.  Somewhere distantly, I can hear lute music.  All of this should spell happiness.  But my best friend Carly puts the car into park, switches off the ignition, and savagely rips the cap off of her lipstick and starts to apply it.

Carly silently applying lipstick means that Carly was angry.  Carly pretty much never does anything silently.

“You know…” I begin, licking my lips.  I clear my throat.  “You know, it might actually be fun today,” I tell Carly, who’s still glowering at her reflection in the rearview mirror.  She snaps the cap back on her “Vixen-Red” lipstick and stares at me with one perfectly manicured eyebrow raised.

“Right.  Because it’s been just so much fun the past four years,” she snorts, pushing up her visor with a roll of her eyes that’s so hard, the force of her sarcasm practically melts the steering wheel.

“Carly…you don’t have to come with us,” I murmur, scrunching down in the passenger seat, shoulders hunched forward as my tiny bit of hope gets squashed.  I know she doesn’t mean for it to hurt, but it does.  I mean, I wish it wasn’t like this, too, but…

“Hey.  Hey,” sighs Carly, glancing sidelong at me.  “Look—you’re my best friend in this entire universe, and several parallel dimensions, okay?”   She holds my gaze for a long moment as she reaches across the space between us and squeezes my hand tightly.  “I would march with you to hell and back if it’s where you wanted to go on summer vacation.”  Her eyes narrow.  “But I’m also allowed to think that your girlfriend is an asshole if, you know, she actually is.”  Carly pulls down the visor again and stabs another bobby pin through her tight red curls and slightly-drooping flower crown.

“I mean, asshole’s a little harsh,” I begin, but then there’s a sharp rap at my window.

And speak of the devil…there’s Nicole.

When Nicole told me, a few nights ago, that Carly and I should go to the festival together, and she’d meet us there on her way home from work, I’d had my doubts she was even going to show up at all.  I mean, I think it’s safe to say that the Renaissance Festival isn’t exactly her scene.  But no—I was wrong.  She was here.

As I stare up at her through the window, at her bright blue eyes that stare deeply into mine for half a heartbeat, I wonder if this means I’ve been wrong about other things.  She tried this time.  That counts for something.

But my girlfriend, the girlfriend I’ve been with for five years, doesn’t exactly look happy to see me.  Yes, her gaze flicks to mine for that heartbeat, but then those piercing eyes are trained back onto her cell phone.  Nicole’s standing outside of the car in her blue power suit with the crisp creases in the legs, soft black briefcase dangling from her bright red fingertips, smart phone in the process of becoming glued to her ear already.  And she’s frowning deeply, her full lips curling down at the corners.  She turns away from me, speaking sharply into the phone.

I hold tightly to my door handle, take a deep breath and open it.  No matter what, at least she’s here, right?

“Asshole,” Carly repeats quietly to me, and then we’re both out of the car, standing on the grass of the “parking lot.”

Nicole doesn’t even look up at me, hasn’t greeted me, hasn’t even grunted in acknowledgement that I’m here.  We haven’t gotten a chance to ask each other how work was, because we don’t really do that anymore.  And I know—my day at the library wasn’t all that exciting, really, but still.  I did survive another day cataloging the gigantic endowment left by Mrs. Herschel.  The most exciting thing that happened was my eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that I’d left in the library lunchroom for two weeks and then found miraculously when I moved the discarded magazines off the table.  The sandwich was still tasty, and I didn’t die from food poisoning.  And if Nicole could unglue the smart phone from her ear for a moment, wipe off the purely disgusted look she has on her face when she glances at the row of people dressed to the nines in period garb, already making their way into the festival, I could tell her that story about my sandwich.  Or at least tell her “hello.”

But she doesn’t unglue the smart phone from her ear.  She doesn’t look my way as she sneers into her phone.

She doesn’t want to be here.  It’s obvious.  So painfully obvious.

I realize, my gut clenching, tension rushing through me already, that I honestly wish she hadn’t come at all.

“David says he’ll be here shortly,” says Carly, glancing down at the phone in her hand when it makes its bicycle bell sound to alert her to his text message.  When she says the name “David,” her voice goes all gooey, like she’s been eating cotton candy, and I grin sidelong at her, folding my arms in front of me and leaning against the side of her badly rusted Ford Escort.  I’m glad Carly has David.  They’re good people, and he’s a good guy, and she really deserves a good guy.

And hey, at least two people in our group of four are going to have a good time today.

I sneak a glance at Nicole.  She’s turned completely away from us now, brandishing her hand as she shakes her head sharply, practically seething into the phone.

Awkward silence crushes us in place for five minutes as Nicole works on her phone, continuing to mutter short, sharp phrases into it until I shift uncomfortably against the car and clear my throat.  Nicole holds up a finger, her other hand furiously pressing at the screen of the smart phone as she ends another call.

“This is important…” she mutters, and then puts it up to her ear, walking away down the line of cars.  She still hasn’t looked at me.  “Jeff?” she says crisply into the smart phone as she raises her chin, her eyes flashing.  “Yes, this is Nicole Harken…”  She stalks quickly away from us, down the staggered line of cars parked on the grass.

“Okay, seriously, Holly—why are you two still together?” asks Carly then in frustration.  Her extremely curly red hair is blowing in a slight wind, her eyes are narrowed as she stares at me, and even though I really, really didn’t want to have this conversation (again) today, I’m struck by how dramatic she looks.  The wind is actually blowing through her hair quite briskly, like she’s on the set of a fantasy movie and about to go into battle…and not asking me painful personal questions.  I clear my throat, shift my weight against her car and purposefully look away, my mouth suddenly dry.  But she doesn’t let up.  “Holly…” Carly murmurs, stepping forward, looping one of her arms through mine tightly.  “You could be so happy.  I promise you, have I ever steered you wrong?”

I glance up at her, already feeling the lump in my throat as I swallow again.  I just wanted to have a nice evening at the Renaissance Festival.  I breathe out.  “Well,” I say, trying to crack a joke, “there was that one time in college—”

“Okay, whatever, we were in college.  Stop bringing up the Bunny Disaster, would you?” she chuckles, but then pins me in her gaze again.  “C’mon, Holly, serious time, okay?  I’ve seen you happy.  I’ve seen you with ladies that are really good for you, and I can tell you, as your best friend and person who’s had a lot of experience seeing you through your highs and lows, Nicole is a definite, definite low.  You’re not a good match, and it needs to end.  I mean, you want it to end, so why are you dragging this out?  Just dump her.  She doesn’t care about you.  We’ve been over this a thousand times—” she groans.

I disengage Carly’s arm from mine quickly (and with a hope that Nicole actually didn’t hear us) as Nicole turns and stalks back toward Carly’s car, phone smoothly tucked into her suit pocket.  “Hello,” she finally tells me, but the word is cut off and curt, and she merely nods her head to Carly, and then smiles a little at me, though it’s strained.  She looks around, her long fingers nervously patting the suit pocket where she just, seconds before, deposited her phone, like she can hardly function without that device in her hand.  “Anyway, ladies, where’s David?  I can only stay here maybe a half hour, hour tops—there’s an account that I have to—”

“Look, Nicole, it costs fifteen bucks to get in,” says Carly, voice sharp as she curls her shoulders forward toward Nicole, her hackles obviously rising.  “You’re just going to waste fifteen bucks on a half hour?  Holly’s been looking forward to this for—”

“Carly, stop,” I mutter, voice quiet.  Nicole’s eyebrows are both up, and she stands with her feet apart, high heels beginning to sink into the turf beneath them, so that she sort of bends backwards, trying to maintain her balance.

“Look, this wasn’t the best day for me.  I had to clear my schedule when I had no time to do so, and my assistant Mikaylah is working double-time,” says Nicole, words just as sharp as Carly’s.  “I’m closing a new account that’s taken me months, and—”

“Well, this happens to be your girlfriend’s favorite day of the year.  Or it was,” Carly hisses, and I gulp down air and am about to interject (or possibly fling myself between them) when I see David walking down the row of cars toward us, waving his empty flagon in the air (I see he brought the one with the axe on the side.  David, in fact, has several flagons) with a very happy grin.

And, just like that, the spell is broken.  Carly’s not paying attention to Nicole anymore—she’s running toward David with an equally happy grin on her face.  Relief rushes through me.

God, things have been so tense lately.  Tense between Nicole and me…tense between Carly and Nicole.  I run a hand through my hair and swallow as we begin to walk after them.

“Half an hour,” Nicole mutters to me as David falls in line with Carly, and I fall in line with her as we make our way toward the brightly painted ticket turret.  I reach across the space between us to take Nicole’s hand, but she snatches it away as her pocket vibrates, and then she slides her hand into the pocket, and that damnable phone is in her grasp again.  She’s got her jaw set as she leans away from me, and it looks like she’s permanently glued that phone to her ear.

Carly’s wrong.  Nicole’s not an asshole.  I know I’m her girlfriend, I’m kind of biased—who really wants to think their partner is an asshole?  But I promise you:  she isn’t.  She’s just preoccupied and very, very busy, and that doesn’t make her an asshole.  But it makes me wish…

Well.  Wish for what exactly?  Nicole and I have been together four years.  In the beginning?  God, in the beginning, we were great together.  There was a point about three years ago that I really thought that Nicole was the woman I’d spend the rest of my life with.

So our relationship didn’t start out like this…hardly ever talking anymore, me being pushed to the back burner so that she could grow her business.  Over time, we sort of fell out of the new love romance.  You know the kind—the sappy, warm, sexy wonderfulness that people say never lasts when you get into a new relationship and that other person is literally all you can think about.

But I’d like to be thought of at least sometimes.

Sometimes, I wish I could fix it—use some sort of magic potion that would make all of the responsibilities at her start-up company sort of dissolve into a pile of goo I could mop up and dispose of.  But I know I can’t.  In the beginning, our relationship was really important to both of us.  But then Nicole stopped remembering things like dates we were supposed to go on, showing up at my house when she said she would, skipping dinners that we were supposed to make for each other.  She kept blaming these absences and forgetfulness on her company, but all of the signs were there, staring me right in the face.  It was obvious that she wasn’t invested in us anymore.  And it’s been obvious for awhile.

I know we have to break up, and I think Nicole knows it, too.

We’re just putting off the inevitable.

Four years?  That’s a long time.  A long time and a pretty big relationship investment.  And, frankly, a great big percentage of your heart, after all.

Right now, we’re still together because it’s comfortable.  There’s so much of her stuff at my place, and so much of my stuff at her place, and it’s just so damn messy.  Everything’s so damn messy.

I shake myself out of my melancholy (or, at the very least, try to), as we approach the ticket turret.  I pay for both Nicole and I when it’s our turn in line, the “wench” behind the counter leaning forward and winking at me as she hands me my change, because she winks at everyone.  I know she’s paid to wink at everyone, but I still make a sidelong glance quickly to Nicole to see if she even noticed.  But nope.  Still chatting away on her cell phone as I slip her ticket into her hand.  She crumples it and slides it into her pocket, mouthing to me “five seconds” as she turns away and stalks quickly into the festival, moving apart from us.

Carly shoots daggers at Nicole, reaching back and looping her arm through mine as she tugs me forward.  “Okay,” she smiles encouragingly at me.  “What do we want to do first?” she asks, as we walk into the festival.

I take a deep breath, inhaling the scent of horse (we’re close to the jousting “arena”), leather and frying turkey legs that permeates the air.  Incense is lingering in the air because we’re close to the lady who hand rolls incense and makes her own soap.  I let my thoughts settle, try to calm my heart, soften the little bolt of pain that keeps twisting when I hear Nicole’s voice rise above the “huzzahs!” behind us, talking about accounts and dollar figures and how sorry she is that it’s so difficult to hear her because she was “roped into this thing” she “couldn’t get out of.”

She actually says that.

The pain cuts me sharply.  I think she thinks she’s far enough back that I can’t hear her, or that there’s too much chaos for me to make out her words.  But I hear them anyway.

“Let’s just go to the first show,” I mutter to Carly, glancing down at the festival program the wench handed to me, blinking back a tear.  I clear my throat.  “It’s the Chivalry and Romance 101 show…” I begin, my voice catching.  Oh, God, no.  Actually, this is a terrible idea, but Carly’s already got her hands at the small of my back, and is pushing me through the crowd towards the closest stage.  The guy on the low, rough platform of boards is dressed up to look like Mr. Bean if Mr. Bean was dressed to look like Shakespeare, all ruffles at the cuffs and a starched and stiff Elizabethan collar that moves with him as he turns smartly on the stage, one hand raised, thick brows raised, too, as if he’s waving to the queen.  He grins grandly at us as we sit on the log bench closest to the stage, the only seat left free.

God, this is such a terrible idea.

“My fine ladies…and gentlemen…” he says, flinging his hands back in true Ren Faire dramatics fashion, the sleeves of his too-white shirt dancing in the evening breeze.  “Who doesn’t love love?  I promise you—you are here to learn from the best of the best!”  He pauses for effect as he waggles his hips and chuckles a little, making the rest of the audience laugh with him.  It’s an obvious joke, but then you go for the obvious jokes at the Renaissance festival.   He continues:  “You, ladies, if you wish to woo your gentlemen, and you—fine gentlemen, if you wish to woo your ladies…it is time that you learn from a master of romance, the sultan of sexuality, the lord of laying!  I will teach you the art of romance like Casanova himself would teach it.  It!  Is!  Time!”

Nicole comes trotting over, smart phone in her hand and not against her ear (which is a good sign), but a grimace on her face and a slight shake of the head, which I already know means that I’m getting less than the aforementioned and promised half hour.  “I’m sorry,” she whispers in my ear quickly as she crouched down beside me, “I’ve got to go—”

“I would like a volunteer!” calls the man on stage.

And this is where it all begins to go very, very wrong.

Carly’s hand shoots up like it’s always been there, pointed straight to the sky, and—of course—since we’re in the front row, the actor dances over to our side of the stage with a wide grin.  “Do we have a volunteer?” he practically purrs, and Carly shakes her head, grinning too.

“She volunteers!” Carly all but sings out, pointing to Nicole.

Nicole opens and shuts her mouth ready to protest quickly, but it’s a pretty packed audience on these little log benches, and the actor is already down among us, with his hand at her elbow, steering her up and toward the stage before she has a chance to say a word.  I already know she’s not going to back out at this point (and they made it onto the stage pretty darn quickly) because she doesn’t want to make a fool of herself.

If you’ve never been to a Renaissance Festival before, “I would like a volunteer” is code for “I need a butt for my jokes and a good sport to do my comedy shtick on.”

I feel sick—or maybe it’s just because of the nerves that I feel sick.  Or maybe it’s the complete dread that instantly fills me that’s giving me this terrible sick feeling.  Carly, seated beside me and grinning like a cat, seems oblivious to the fact that things have just gone terribly, terribly wrong.  Or, maybe, she wants to see Nicole squirm.

“And you are, the fair lady…” says the actor, handing Nicole a small hand-held microphone.  Nicole sighs out, leaning back on her heels for a long minute before she mutters into it:

“Nicole.”

“And who here is your fair gentleman?” asks the actor, peering out into the crowd.

“I’m a lesbian,” says Nicole flatly into the microphone, her brow raised like she’s daring him to make an issue of it, and the actor—to his credit—falters for only half a second.

“Ah, wonderful!  Who here is your fair lady, then, my apologies?”

I’m angry at Carly.  I should be.  It was a dirty, rotten thing she did, but I know she’s miffed at Nicole for upsetting me.  But it’s not really Nicole’s fault.  We’re not right for each other, and we both know it.  But still, even after all that, there was a small part of my heart—really, really small, but still there—that hoped that when Nicole went up on that stage, and when the actor took her through the whole hokey act, that when she looked at me…I don’t know.  That there’d be at least something there.  Maybe one of her little grins.  Maybe a softening of her face.  Maybe even a smile.  Something to prove that there was still a connection between us.  That there was still something in our relationship that could be salvaged.

Yes, I wanted something, I realize, as she gazes at me with complete apathy, her mouth turning down at the corners into a frown as she points to me.

I wanted something.

And it wasn’t there.

I don’t remember what the actor says.  I don’t remember what Nicole says, mumbling into the microphone as quickly as she can to get out of this, and then trotting down off the stage steps amid the smattering of polite, chilly applause because, as the actor says, she was such a “good sport.”  She takes another call on her phone, slipping it out of her pocket and turning away from me, without even a single glance in my direction as she leaves the festival.

It was a beautiful day:  full sun, the perfect temperature (not too hot, but warm enough for t-shirts).  The weather guy predicted it to be one of the most beautiful sunsets we’ve seen in weeks tonight.  But as Nicole leaves the faire, the soft gray clouds that had seemed so non-threatening begin to build along the horizon, turning darker as the sun descends.  And it starts to rain.

Standing in the downpour as Carly waits for her gigantic turkey leg on a stick, I draw my shawl about me, feel the cold drops plink down on my neck as I stare at the mud.

It’s then that I know I have to end it.

 

 

 

Chapter 2:  It’s in a Book

 

“Please don’t be mad, Holly…” says Carly as she puts the car into park.  I sit back in my seat, stare out the front window at the wall of water on the windshield.  It’s a proper storm out now, complete with rolling thunder and jagged bolts of lightning and enough water to drown anyone who dares step outside.  The rush of rain on the top of the car sounds like Niagara Falls.  I stare out at the storm, and I let out a long sigh.

“Holly,” Carly begins again and shakes her head.  “C’mon, please, seriously.  I was just trying to help…”

I bite my lip, my eyes narrowing as I stare out the windshield at the streetlamp in front of my house.  As I watch it, the light flickers and goes out.

“Well, you didn’t help,” I mutter, shaking a little under my soaked skirt and blouse and shawl.  The rain had been so much colder than a summer shower had any right to be.  “And the worst part of it, Carly?”  I raise my hand as she starts up, and—to her credit—Carly stops trying to interject.  “I wasn’t certain before,” I whisper then.  “But I am now.  It’s over.  Nicole and I…we’ve got to break up.”

I’m so stupid.  So stupid.  I promised myself I wouldn’t cry, and I’m totally going to catch my death now, because suddenly I’m sitting in Carly’s freezing car in my soaking clothes, sobbing my heart out, and because I’m crying so hard, my immune system is going to be lowered, and I’m going to catch the plague.

Or something.

“Oh, honey,” says Carly, and—awkward in the confined space—she turns, somehow, and reaches for me, and hugs me tightly as I sob, twisted at a completely unnatural angle, onto her comforting, sandalwood-scented shoulder.

I’m sure Carly’s happy about this, but—to her credit—she’s not visibly over-the-moon about the fact that I’m breaking up with Nicole.  She doesn’t say anything, actually, only squeezes me tightly until I pull back a little, fishing a useless damp tissue out of my very damp purse.

“This is so stupid…” I mutter, breathing out as a sob begins to rise in my throat again.  “I mean, I knew it was going to end.  That we had to end it.  It’s hardly news to me, you know?  I just…”  I turn to look at Carly, shrug helplessly.  “I just thought she was the one, you know?  In the beginning…she tried so hard.  Really hard, Carly.  Remember the time she had a rainbow bouquet of roses delivered to the library with a card asking me out to Pride?  Or that time I was really sick, and she drove all over Boston to every single video rental place to find me a copy of Rebecca because I loved it so much?  God, she was so thoughtful.”  I stare down at the damp tissue in my hands, the tissue I was beginning to shred.  “All of this was before stupid Advanatech, of course,” I whisper the name of Nicole’s start-up company and rub at my face with the tissue, trying—and failing—to rid myself of a few shed tears.

Nicole and I had come up with that name together.  Advanatech.  A start up business is a really difficult enterprise to involve yourself in, and I’d tried to always be the supportive girlfriend, understanding of her constant date cancellations and her increasing shortness toward me.  It was stressful to open a start-up, and I’d tried so hard to be considerate.  Maybe I’d been too considerate.

“I think she really loved me, Carly,” I whisper to her, taking a deep, ragged breath.  “And I really loved her.  And I had these stupid fantasies, you know?  About us getting married.  They were really stupid, because Nicole doesn’t even believe in getting married, but the point is…”  I bite my lip, squeezing my eyes shut.  I know I’m a blubbering idiot, but I need to say it, need to put it out into the world, if only for a heartbeat.  “The point is, that I thought I was with the woman I was going to spend the rest of my life with.  And I was very wrong.  And that’s very hard.”

Carly takes a deep breath and sighs out.  The rain drumming on the roof of the car is a constant shush of sound, and if I keep my eyes tightly closed, it seems like the only thing that’s real.  It helps, for half a heartbeat, to ignore the pain in my heart.  But the pain is too insistent to be ignored for more than a few seconds, really, and rushes back when I open my eyes and stare out the blurry windshield.  Blurry because of the rain pouring down it, but also blurry from my unshed tears.

“This is going to be okay, Holly,” says Carly then, voice resolute.  Firm.  Gentle.  “You and Nicole weren’t right for each other, and that’s okay.”  It’s the nicest she’s talked about Nicole in months.  I glance at her.  Carly’s mouth is so small, pressed into a thin line as she nods to me.  “I’m serious.  When you break up with her, you’ll see—life will go on, get better.  You guys weren’t meant for each other.  And there’s another woman out there for you, Holly.  The right one.”

“That might be a little too soon,”  I tell her.  “And anyway, that’s ridiculous.”  I shake my head.  “Carly, look at me,” I mutter, feeling the waves of sadness begin to rise again.  I tick down my fingers.  “The Knights of Valor Festival is my favorite day of the year.  I collect unicorn figurines.  I’m more obsessed with books than I am with people—” I splutter.

Carly shakes her head, laughing.  “I promise you, there are many other ladies out in this big, vast world who love books as much as you do.  And hey, you’re a librarian!  Librarians are super desirable—they’re hot!  I mean, they make porn about librarians!”

That statement comes from so far out of left field that she actually gets a surprised chuckle out of me before I stare at her, trying not to smile.  I don’t know how she does it, but Carly’s always been the one who, on my very worst days, was always capable of getting at least a smile out of me.

“Okay, seriously?” I ask, still chuckling.  “How do you know they make porn about librarians, and are you even listening to me?”

Holly,” says Carly, reaching out and pressing her palms against the sides of my face, squeezing my cheeks together.  She used to do this in college, too, when I began to freak out about finals.  “Shush,” she growls, brow raised, when I begin to shake my head.  “Look, I know what I’m talking about, okay?  And I’m telling you right now:  you’re beautiful, and funny, and generous, and really fucking awesome, and while it’s true that not everyone thinks unicorns are as cool as they were in the eighties, that’s not going to keep the right girl from falling in love with you, so would you cut the shit and break up with Nicole, and make space in your life for the right woman?”  She glances sidelong at me.  “You know your mother would want you to be happy.”

My heart skips a beat, and I clutch the car door handle, feel myself pale.  “Don’t,” I whisper.  “Not tonight.”

She lets go of my face, slumps back in her seat.  “I’m sorry,” she whispers.

I bite back tears.  Nod.  I know she is.

Then she breathes out, flings her hands in the air.  “Okay!  But, Holly!  You could be happy.  Are you really going to do this?  You’re not going to back out, right?”

I take a few deep breaths and listen to the rain dancing on the roof of the car.  I sigh out, shake my head, feeling myself deflate.

I felt so sure, before.  But when I think about actually doing it, actually telling Nicole that I don’t think we’re right for each other, all I can see is the time when Nicole wrote me that love letter and had it delivered in a dozen roses, and…

“You’re not going to do it.”  Carly leans forward and bangs her head gently against her steering wheel, eliciting little beeps from the horn.  “Oh, my God, you’re not going to do it.”

“Carly, it’s not that easy…” I begin, but I stop, breathe out, hold my purse tightly against my stomach.  The earlier levity is gone as if it never existed, and in that moment, I feel so defeated and small and sad.  “I’ve got to go,” I mutter, and open the car door to the deluge.

“Hey,” says Carly, and I glance back at her, one foot out in the mess of the night.  “I love you, okay?” she tells me fiercely.  “And I’m really sorry.  About earlier.  I never should have volunteered Nicole.  It was stupid,” she says, and I gulp down more tears and a sob, and I nod as she starts the car.  I can’t speak in that moment, there’s too much emotion running through me.

“I’ll call you tomorrow!” she shouts after me as I slam the door shut, and holding my purse over my head, I run across the sidewalk, and up my front steps, squelching under the overhang as I fumble with my key ring with frozen fingers.  Carly pulls away from the curb and beeps her usual, cheerful rhythm of farewell, but it gets swallowed by a crack of thunder overhead so loud that it makes my teeth rattle.

The front door opens as I manage to finally get the key into the lock, and I stumble into the darkness of my lavender-scented hallway.  I shut the door behind me, sighing and leaning against it, shaking in the dark (I forgot to turn my AC unit off that morning) before I flip on the light switch, toss my keys and purse in the blue ceramic bowl on the little hall table and hang up my dripping shawl on the hook.

Shelley rounds the corner at a dead run, her white and gold mane flying out behind her, her long nose aimed like a missile, just as I begin to walk (squishing) down the hallway.  She skids to a halt by running into me, and I manage to smile down at one of my favorite people in the world.  Er, fur-people.

“Hey, sweet girl,” I tell her, rubbing behind her soft-as-silk gold ears and crouching down beside her, and then like a total dope, I wrap my arms around my poor dog’s fluffy neck, and I start to weep into her shoulder.  Shelley, of course, thinks this is the! Funnest! Game! and begins to nose at me and paw at me with a small, deep “woof.”

That’s her signal that she’s really glad I made it home and all, but she has business to attend to.  I take a deep, ragged breath, stagger to my feet and wander toward the back door to let her out.  There’s another ear-numbing crash of thunder that follows a streak of lightning, making the branches of the tree out back lengthen in shadows against the wooden fence.  I pull the sliding glass door back and Shelley goes tearing out, and as I watch her, I realize how exhausted I am.  How deeply tired, a bone-deep tired.

Shelley’s as drenched as I am when I let her back in, and we both end up in the bathroom amidst a lot of towels (and the laundry was already in dire need of doing, drat it).  I towel off her golden-brown coat, and she rewards me with licking my face a lot, her big, joyful doggie smile so bright, that she’s radiating pure joy.  Her long, usually-silky ears are still damp, so she keeps shaking her head and then falling on me because she’s off balance, the tiled floor is slippery, and her paws are wet.  Every time she lands on me, she gives me another lick in apology.

Nicole barely tolerates Shelley.  As I hold my dog’s head in my hands, kissing her long, beak-like nose and telling her how much I love her (because that’s simply what you do when you’re around Shelley—this is the dog every pet store employee, groomer, vet and person-who-walks-their-dog-in-dog-parks within a fifty mile radius knows by name and favorite treat), I wonder if the reason that I ignored all of the signs that I should break up with Nicole because it was just easier not to see them.  Which is, I realize, as I stand and slip into my bathrobe, a really terrible excuse to stay with someone.

Anyone.  Even Nicole, the woman I thought, for a long while, was the one I was meant to be with forever.

I know what I need, just like Shelley does, as I fill her bowl of food with fresh kibble.  She munches happily as I turn the tea kettle’s burner on, pulling the box of chamomile tea from the cupboard and setting it next to my favorite mug (Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble! is printed in a really cheesy font around a cauldron that bears the name “Cat, Cow and Cauldron.”  It’s a long story.  Yes, the word “cow” is sort-of intentional.) and my honey bear.  I go back into the bathroom that now smells like wet dog (and, to be fair, wet human) and start the water running for the bath, and then I’m headed to my bedroom and my glorious “to be read” pile.

Everyone has a “to be read” pile, and depending on how obsessed the person is with books, the stack (or shelf. Or shelves. Or entire bookshelves) vary in size.  But when you’re a librarian?  Your “to be read” pile is the stuff of legends.  I have books stacked all along the west wall in my bedroom in varying columns, some that go taller than my head.  If I squint, the different sized columns look like a city skyline, made entirely of hardcover and paperback books.  I stand and look at it now, my hands on my hips as I listen to the tear of thunder that arches through the sky again, and—in the kitchen—the insistent and cheerful whistle of my teakettle.

And I ignore my “to be read” stacks entirely, and cross the room to my bedside table.  The porcelain unicorn on my lamp looks up at me dolefully as I switch it on and kneel down to fish under my bed, the hiding place of my favorite comfort reads.

My fingers grasp a familiar and well-worn volume, and I sigh with relief as I bring it out into the light.

It’s an old blue hardcover, worn and threadbare on the corners and spine, and printed there in dull, gold letters are the words The Knight of the Rose.  I hold it to my chest now, and rise, feeling the familiar skip of my heartbeat that I get whenever I pick up this book.  I’ve picked it up a thousand times—maybe ten thousand times—but it’s always the same feeling, that little pit-a-pat of my heart that tells me I’m holding a treasure.

And it is a treasure.  This is the book that I’ve turned to in times of sadness, of happiness, of joy and sorrow.  This is my comfort book, my heart book.  And I need it again tonight as I wander back into the kitchen, and—unthinking and unseeing—pour the hot water over my two teabags of chamomile (it was such a rotten day, I need my calming tea at double strength).  I take my mug into the bathroom, toss a handful of lavender bath salt into the tub, and let the robe fall to the ground.  The water’s too hot for a lobster, but I get in anyway, sink down, gritting my teeth and let the boiling liquid cover me.  After a lot of pin-pricking discomfort, I sigh happily and lean back in the tub, my flesh now medium-rare and able to withstand the heat.

Then I reach over the tub’s side, towel off my hands on my fluffy blue robe, and I pick up the book.

And then I crack it open.  Again.  The steam curls the bottom pages, just like it has several hundred times before.

I don’t even need to read the first line (or, really, paragraph), but my eyes move over the worn words I know by heart, and my lips move along to them, the sadness corralled in my heart, for a moment, out of sight and mind as I slip into the story.

Once, there was a brave young girl, who wanted—more than anything—to be a knight.  She wished to don the strange, bright armor that her older brothers wore, she wished to wield a shining sword like her older brothers did, and she wished—more than anything—to leave her sad, small town and journey the world and have adventures. 

“But you can’t, because you’re a girl,” her brothers, all knights, taunted her. 

This girl’s name was Miranda, and this is how her story began:  with a wish, and a will.

I remember, as I always do, when I read the first page, the first time that I read it.  I was fifteen, standing in the first row of shelves at my school’s library, having just come from the bathroom where I’d tried really very hard with makeup and a lot of cold water, to make it look like I hadn’t been crying.  These hadn’t been a few sad salty tears I’d shed.  I’d been sobbing in the bathroom stall, heart-aching, gut-wrenching sobs, for twenty minutes.  I had, of course, failed miserably to mask my red, blotchy face and puffy eyes.

I came out in high school.  In the nineties.  It was not a pretty picture by any stretch of the imagination.  I wanted to be out and proud when, really, not that many people were out in high school then, and the ones who were lead terrible, miserable lives full of homophobia.  I don’t know what I was thinking, but I really believed it’d be okay.  Yes, even then, I was pretty idealistic.  I’d had this idea that coming out would make my life better, not worse.  That, if I came out, I might even be able to find the girl of my dreams and have some sort of wonderful teen romance.  But my coming out didn’t result in anything more than non-stop bullying that made my life a perfect replica of hell.

That day, like most days of my teen years, I was imagining my life as being lived anywhere but there, in that stupid little town with all of its stupid, little, narrow-minded people.

In short, I needed escape like I’d never needed it before.

And, somehow, I’d wandered into the fantasy section of the library.

“Hey,” said Miss T, our school librarian, as she wandered by and happened to take note of me crumpling my face into a tissue.  “Are you all right, dear?”

“No,” I told her truthfully.  It was a small school.  She knew what I was, and why I’d been crying.  But—strangely unlike the other teachers—she came up to me and offered me another tissue without flinching, staring down the row of books with a thoughtful turn of her head and its super-perm.

“You know,” she said, tapping a finger to her mauve lips, “I have a book I think might interest you.  If you’d like a recommendation.”

“Sure,” I muttered, and like some sort of magical creature, she darted forward and pulled down a slight volume with a worn, blue cover from the nearest shelf.  Emblazoned on the book’s spine were the words The Knight of the Rose.

“Everyone needs a heroine like them,” she said with a smile, handing me the book.  “Tell me what you think of it.”

I’d had no idea, that weird, distant afternoon, what she was talking about.  But I took the book home, because she’d given it to me.  And I read it.

So, The Knight of the Rose?  It’s about a girl named Miranda who becomes a knight, who has a bunch of really wonderful adventures…who falls in love with a princess, and marries her at the end of the book.

A girl knight.  Marries a princess.  And is the heroine of the book.

Everyone does need a heroine like them.  I’d never realized how much, until I read that story.  And it saved my life.  It changed me, in a way that only books can.  It gave me a sense of strength, of place in the world, because I was no longer “Holly the homo” (as charmingly unoriginal as it was), what they chanted at me in the hallways of my stupid little school.  I was just me.  Just Holly.  And I could do or be anything, because there was a story about someone like me.  And hey, the heroine of that story had done pretty all right for herself.  So maybe I could, too.

I turn the page now, sinking deeper in the water as I take a sip of tea.  It burns the roof of my mouth, but I don’t even notice as I dive into the words again.  The steam from the bathtub crinkles the already-crinkled pages further as my breathing becomes soft and even, as my muscles relax, as I feel the warmth of the water and the story and the tea cradle me and take me to someplace else, someplace better, just like they always have.

Here’s the secret:  in the beginning, when I first read this book, I thought I wanted to be Miranda.  Go off on countless adventures, be able to ride any magnificent steed, woo any lovely lady.  But I don’t want that anymore.  If I was going to be perfectly honest with myself (and, really, when am I ever honest with myself?), I know the truth:  I wish Miranda was real, so that I could fall in love with her.

Growing up, I had to be the strong one.  I had to be, and I’m glad I was.  But I’ve always been the aggressor in every relationship, and I’ve always been the one who went after the girl and after the woman, and I’ve always been the one to hold it together.  But when I read these lines, this story, see how dashing Miranda is, how she builds this beautiful character of chivalry and honor and romance and devotion, I feel parts of myself beginning to crumble.

I want that, I know, as I close the book because the words are becoming too blurry.  I set the hardcover on the edge of the sink and slip down, down into the water again, letting a single tear shed down my cheek.

I want that.

And I honestly don’t think I’m ever going to get it.

I have the tendency to fall for exactly the wrong woman.  Carly could tell you that I have really terrible taste in the romance category.  Yes, I want the kind of love that’s written into a book, a woman sweeping me off my feet, fully devoted to me, thoughtful, considerate, kind.  But instead of a woman who exemplifies those things coming after me, I don’t wait to see if it will happen.  I end up going after the woman I feel might be what I want, but who never ends up being that way.

I don’t wait, I don’t have much patience when it comes to dating, but secretly, I want to be gone after.  But I’m never in the right place or the right time for someone who makes my heart flutter and wants me, too.  The one time that a woman aggressively pursued me was this lady who worked at the local coffee shop, who had a husband and a kid.  I honestly believe that I just have really, really terrible luck in the love department.  I mean, have you ever heard of anyone else this unlucky?  Someone who gets impatient waiting for someone to come along, so pursues all the wrong women?

Through the open bathroom door, I see another white-hot blast of lightning, and I begin to count until the thunder, but I don’t even whisper the word “one” before the deafening explosion of sound makes the walls of the house shake.  From out in the hall, I can hear Shelley whimpering and then she comes dashing into the bathroom as the lights flicker.  I reach out with a wet hand, pet behind her ears as she plaintively puts her long nose on the side of the tub, staring up at me with wide eyes, her long, feathery tail wagging limply.

“It’s okay, baby…it’s just the storm…” I whisper to her as the lights flicker again.  “You’re okay, baby, you’re okay…” I murmur, and she lies down beside the tub, flattening her head between her paws, and staring up at me morosely with big brown eyes.

I glance up as the power flickers, as the lights begin to dim.  For half a heartbeat, they come back brightly.

But then they go out.

“Well, crap,” I mutter, reaching over the edge of the tub and patting the bathroom floor as I search for the soft, plush fabric of my bathrobe.  My fingers connect with soft plush and long dog hair.  Shelley’s lying on my robe.  I tug at the corner of the robe trying to gently dislodge her off of it, and I’ve almost gotten her off of it when I stop, because every hair on my body stands to attention in that instant.

Shit, is the house going to be struck by lightning?  I scrabble out of the bath—I’m sure being in the tub isn’t the brightest idea if lightning is about to hit the house—and I shrug into the robe with shaking hands, crouching down onto the tile floor and hold Shelley tightly, feeling her heart beat much too quickly beneath my fingers.  She feels it, too.  Maybe the house is going to be struck by lightning.  But wouldn’t it already have happened by now?

And then I hear it.

My first thought is that it’s a scream.  But not really.  It couldn’t be, because I’ve never heard a sound like that before.  It’s like a cross between a bellow, and a growl, and a scream all at once, and it’s got to be an animal—no human could make that noise—but I can’t imagine what kind of animal it could be that could sound so…so enormous, so angry…so terrifying.  The scream makes the floor shake beneath my knees, makes the jar I keep my q-tips in on the glass shelf in the bathroom rattle loudly and move toward the shelf’s edge.

Every hair is still to attention as I struggle to rise, my hands shaking as I try to knot the robe’s belt at my waist.  The sound comes again, deafening, roaring, ending in a deep, guttural yowl that is pure horror, that goes on for a solid minute, a sound that will live in my nightmares forever.  I stumble down the stairs.  It’s an animal, it must be.  And it’s right outside.

In my backyard.

I stand in my living room, drawing my robe closer about me as I shake, dripping on the floor.  I stare out into the backyard.  The rain comes down in buckets—it’s impossible to see anything beyond the water-washed sliding glass door—and every hair I possess is still at attention, and my skin’s crawling as I peer out into the darkness, try to see.

A flash of lightning arches across the sky so brightly that it looks like day for half a heartbeat.

There’s something out there.

Someone.

 

 

 

Chapter 3:  Virago

 

I make my way across the room to the sliding glass door and stand, open mouthed and staring into the abysmal darkness of the out-of-doors.  I thought I saw…

Nope.  Absolutely not.  I could not have possibly seen what I thought I saw.  I blink, swallow, fiddle with the ends of my robe’s belt.

But I thought…

Another flash of lightning.  My breath catches in my throat.

I flip up the lock of the door, and suddenly I’ve pulled the door open, the sash in my hand.  And before I know it, I’ve moved, unthinking, out onto the back porch, and down the three steps and I’m standing on my soaking lawn as the rain roars down around me, beating against me like the crashing wave of a tsunami.

The sound of metal against metal clashes out.  I see a spark in the darkness as I run across the grass, angling toward the back of my yard.

“Stand and fight me, bastard of darkness!”

This makes me stop, makes me skid to a halt.  It was a woman’s strong voice, ringing in a bellow, rising loudly around me.

Another bolt of lightning hits a nearby tree, or it must have hit something nearby, even though I didn’t see the bolt connect.  Because the crash and sparks that follow almost deafen and blind me.

But as I stand there, rubbing at my eyes, the rain pouring around me, I see something move in the backyard again.  What I thought I’d only imagined.  What can’t possibly be there.

What can’t possibly exist.

It’s as tall as my house is my first thought, an abstract thought that slowly prostrates itself in my head and dies as the fear takes over, the fear that rises in me until it seems that all I am is fear.  Because whatever that thing is, it’s as tall as my house, and it’s dark, and it’s enormous, and I think those are teeth in a gigantic mouth, and if those are teeth, then they’re as long as my arm, and the mouth is as big as my car, and what the hell am I staring at as it rears up like some strangely misshapen dinosaur.

I’m staring at something that I know doesn’t exist, but at the same time…I’m staring at it.

And it’s then that I notice the person-sized shape at its feet, and thanks to another dangerously close lightning strike, I see the person-sized shape raise something that if I did not think that I was absolutely dreaming, right in this moment, I would say it was…well.

A sword.

Fight me!” comes the woman’s voice again, demanding and absolute as she brandishes the sword overhead, pointing it at the sky.  But the lightning flickers and is gone, and there’s suddenly too much darkness to see anything.  But I can hear everything.  I can hear the sound of metal against metal, the clanging, the hot hiss that sounded a lot like the air being punched out of a tire.

There’s the roaring silence of rainfall and nothing else besides for a long moment, as my skin crawls, and I try desperately to see something—anything—in my dark backyard.

That’s when I hear that sound again, the sound that first brought me to the door, the bellow/scream/growl/hiss that really does sound like the cross of a tyrannosaurus rex (if Jurassic Park movies actually got that sound right) and a tiger, and it rises all around me, that terrible, nightmarish scream, and then there’s a crunch, and a slithery shushing that makes my entire body shudder involuntarily…

And then the silence of the pouring rain.

More lightning.  The…whatever-it-was is gone.  There’s nothing in my backyard now but that person-sized shape, and it’s no longer standing—it’s kneeling, crumpled.

Pure instinct takes over, makes me put one foot in front of the other, and I’m running the rest of the way across the yard.

If this is a dream, it’s a very real one as I draw closer, because she looks up, this woman who’s crumpled on my lawn, and she says with a strong voice that shakes only a little, and only at the end:  “M’lady, don’t draw closer…the beast could still be about, and it’s very dangerous…”  She can hardly get out that last word as she uses her sword—oh, my God, she has a sword—to try and lever herself into a standing position, but her hand slips on the hilt, and she crumples further, to her hands and knees.  “Please leave, I will give it chase, and I will…”  She coughs a little, and then she’s fallen over, onto her back, sinking down into the mud and grass.

I run the rest of the way and kneel down beside her, sinking down into the mud, too, as I stare down at this woman, my heart beating so quickly, I think it’s going to erupt from me, squeeze out from between my ribs and run around in the grass screaming.  Her eyes are closed, her brow is lined, and her lips are crumpled in a cry of quiet pain, but her eyelids flutter for just a heartbeat, and she gazes up at me.

Her eyes are so blue, they’re like ice.

Stars.

Yes, they’re like stars.  Bright, burning, ice-blue stars.

Everything else disappears in that moment, the pouring rain, the squelching mud that clings to my legs, the fear that was everywhere a handful of heartbeats ago as I stare down into her ice-blue, star-blue eyes.

But then it’s over, and reality comes crashing back as she closes her eyes and folds forward a little, and that’s when I notice that she’s wearing…well, I don’t really know what she’s wearing.  It looks like armor, but it isn’t, really:  it seems to be leather and metal combined together, and it covers her chest and shoulders, and she has a fur capelet and a cloak.  Her sword, still gripped in a white-knuckled hand, is currently blade-deep in the mud.  As I stare down at this woman, this ridiculously beautiful woman wearing armor and wielding a sword in my backyard, I realize that she must be from the Knights of Valor Festival.  Of course she must be.  And there’s something wrong with her—she looks like she’s hurt.

“Are you okay?” I ask, my voice shaking, my teeth chattering together.  The rain’s too cold—it’s early July, but the rain that pelts down around us is as cold as the water I store in a pitcher in my fridge.

She doesn’t respond.  Her eyes are closed, her long lashes resting against tanned cheeks, her full lips parted, and her breath coming in low, harsh pants.

I think she’s unconscious now.

Well, shit.

I don’t know what to do.  They say to never move someone who may have sustained trauma, but really, what could she have sustained trauma from?  And isn’t this a dream, anyway?

I glance up at the dark sky, squinting my eyes against the rain, but the lightning seems to have stopped for the moment.  But even if there was lightning, what would it illuminate?  What was that…thing?  What did I actually just see?

A…monster?

I bite my lip for a moment—I honestly don’t really know what to do—and then pure instincts take over again.  If this is a dream (and if this is a dream, it’s the realest dream I’ve ever had in my life), then it won’t matter what happened in it once I wake up.  And if it isn’t a dream, I’ve got to do something about her injuries.  Or at least figure out what her injuries are.

I roll the woman over as gently as I can, then try to leverage her upper body into a seated position so that I can lift her arm and put it around my shoulders, help her stand, or at least get her into a position where I can drag her as gently as I can into the house.  But I guess her armor is heavier than I thought, and she’s taller than I thought, too, and she seems to be made of one pure muscle since she’s so ridiculously heavy that I can’t even lift her upper body even a little, and the arm I’m trying to get around my shoulder is as hard as a rock.  I grapple with her shoulders for another moment, but because I’m trying to be careful, and because her armor is wet and slippery, she slides right out of my hands, and I catch her head before it lolls back against the soaking mud and grass, my fingers tangling in her soaking ponytail.

Her eyelids flutter, and she opens them a crack, breathing out and groaning, her forehead furrowed.  “M’lady, please,” she mutters, her voice low and velvety.  She tries to turn over, push herself to her hands and knees again.  “You need to get inside, so that I can—”  She begins to cough, her voice catching.  She spits something out of her mouth, something dark that, even in the night, I realize is probably blood.  She shudders and takes another ragged breath, shaking her head.

“You’re hurt.  I think.” I mutter to her, again tugging at her arm so that I can loop it around my neck and shoulders.  “I’m trying to get you inside okay?  I want to help you.”

“M’lady…”  She grips my wrists tightly with leather gloved hands, glancing at my face before closing her eyes again, groaning under her breath.  She reaches down, grips her side, taking a deep breath.  “It’s not safe,” she whispers then, her low voice catching.  “Please, go.  I will…I will…”

Her gloved hand comes away from her side, and I grip it tightly.  My hand is slippery against her glove, and I glance down at my fingers.

There’s so much blood.

“It’s okay,” I soothe quietly.  Maybe she has a concussion.  (Or maybe she’s talking about that thing you refuse to acknowledge you saw, I think to myself.)  “We’ll get you inside.  My house is right here.  It’s perfectly safe.”

Maybe she doesn’t have enough energy for more words, because she doesn’t say anything else, only breathes heavily as she finally acquiesces, shifting her weight on her knees and leaning heavily on me just then.  I fumble with cold hands, but manage to grip her wrist and pull her one arm over my shoulder (God, she really is super muscular—her bicep alone is rock-hard and larger than normal.  Maybe she lifts weights?), and then manage to place my other arm around her waist.  The fabric of her shirt not covered by armor is hot to the touch, and when my grip slips for half a heartbeat, my fingers connect with skin.  Smooth, soft skin that’s so hot it’s burning under my fingertips.

And, as odd as the situation is, as cold as the rain that pours around us…I still find myself blushing when my hand curls over that warm skin.

God, seriously, Holly, I groan to myself.  What a moment to realize that I have my arm around a gorgeous woman.

I manage to leverage her up to a somewhat standing position, though I’m not even really sure how I did it.  Probably the pure adrenaline that’s pounding through me helped me, because this woman is taller than me, more muscled than I am, and wearing really heavy armor.  I can’t breathe, there’s rain in my eyes, my nose, my mouth, and we stagger toward the back door as I splutter, do my absolute best to try and hold her up.

Shelley choose that exact moment to come tearing out of the house through the sliding glass door that I, like an idiot, left completely open.  The lightning must have kept her inside until now—it’s really the only thing that frightens my over-exuberant ball of energy.

“Shelley!”  I hiss as she comes bounding joyfully up to us.  “Baby, get back inside now,” I mutter, but when has Shelley ever listened to me for a moment in her life?  She continues to spring alongside us, leaping up and trying to sniff the dangling drenched bits of fur from the woman’s capelet.

I drag the woman up the three steps to my back patio, and then across the patio and through the sliding glass door, and—blessedly—we’re out of the rain.  I help her limp to the touch, and then I let her slump down as gently as I can onto its cushions.  I rush back to the sliding glass door and whistle for Shelley, who comes darting inside and shaking, rain water and wet dog smell everywhere as I pull the sliding glass door finally closed.

When the door is shut, when the insistent pulsing of the rain and thunder and lightning and the overwhelming nature show is safely behind glass once more, I turn around slowly, and I try to flick on the lights.

The power must have come back on.  Because somehow, magically, the lights flare to life.

The woman pants on my couch, her chest heaving as she tries to breathe, as she presses one gloved hand against her side.

God, there’s so much blood.

Shelley’s sitting in front of her and wagging her tale like the crazed dog she is as she insistently licks the stranger’s outstretched fingers of her other hand.  The woman is watching me, her face creased with pain, but as I cross over to her, sink down in front of her and stare up at her strange outfit, the bits of armor and fur capelet and soaking cloak and leather boots, I realize abstractly that she looks like she stepped out of a medieval painting, sort of.  The armor is too modified to be truly medieval, but I have to admit—it’s the best modification job I’ve ever seen.  There’s metal bits, intricately spiraled and molded, to go along with the leather that’s been burned with careful patterns.  She has a breastplate of that mash-up of leather and metal, and she has leather pants, oh my god, and metal plates that form a sort-of short skirt over the pants, and leather wrist-cuffs that extend up to her elbows and well down and over her wrists to shield the back of her strong, broad hands that she reveals as she slowly takes off her blood-soaked leather gloves.

I can’t bear to look up at her eyes, her face, because when I do, my heart does this dangerous little dance again, and I really need to get it together, because she’s staring down at me, eyes wide and intense, and I swallow, breathe out, and it turns into a little cough.

She’s gorgeous in a way that’s difficult for me to understand, a wild kind of gorgeous that I don’t think I’ve really seen in any human being.  She’s got the intense stare of a creature who hunts for her food, who should never be messed with, but there’s also a gentleness to her gaze when she looks at me.

And oh my goodness is she intense as she stares down at me, still panting.  Her face is creased in obvious pain, yes, but it’s still easy to see how full her lips are, how inviting the curve of her jaw is.  The brightness of her blue eyes is almost bewitching.  Her long black hair is drawn up into a very severe and high ponytail, and she has a bit of fur wrapped around the thong that keeps her hair up, that drapes down next to her hair and over her shoulder.  It’s gray fur, like a wolf’s.  I’m trying not to notice the strong, tanned curve of her neck, the way it slopes down to the breastplate, and it’s then that I sort of wake up, because I glance down at the rest of her body again and I see her leg, the hole in the leather of her torso, and the leather on both her thigh and her stomach have tears in it, but the most obvious thing to see is that she has a gigantic wound on her leg.

There’s blood everywhere.

I breathe out again through my mouth, try to think about things other than blood as I get a little light headed, and I stumble to my feet, rush to the kitchen, and I’m back again with an armful of paper towels as I kneel beside her, offer them to her, then crouch down in front of her again, holding out the armful of paper towels.

I have no idea how much pain she’s in.  But judging from her grimace, from how white her skin is under that tan…probably a lot.

“Oh, my God,” I mutter, holding out the paper towels to her with a shaking hand.  “Are you…are you okay?”

It’s then that she cracks a little smile, her lips turning up at the corners for a heartbeat as she chuckles with her low, velvet voice.  She shakes her head as she grimaces, paling further as she leans forward a little at the waist.

“No,” she answers, and it’s smooth and easy that word, a little rich, low laugh following it.  She flicks her gaze up to meet my eyes, her own blue eyes flashing brightly.  “Thank you for your concern, m’lady, but in truth, it’s just a little thing.”

We both stare down, just then, at the wound in her leg as the blood oozes over her skin and pants and plinks onto my couch, kind of soaking the dull, gray cushions with bright crimson.

“Not exactly little,” I mutter, and lean forward, poised with the paper towels.  She reaches out, wraps her fingers around my wrist, and I shudder at her touch—her hand is so hot—but I also shudder, because it’s so gentle, those strong fingers that touch me so softly that it’s almost like she isn’t touching me at all.

But I notice, very, very much, that she is.

She grips my wrist gently, shaking her head.  “Don’t concern yourself with me me.  I shall be well in the morning,” she mutters, breathing out, locking eyes with me.  We stare at one another for a long moment, and she sort of leans back against the couch, letting go of my wrist gradually as if she’s lost the strength to curl her fingers.  “Where am I?” she asks then, sighing out and glancing past me to my living room, to Shelley who’s wagging her tail so hard, it’s in danger of falling off.

“Um.  On East Linden Street,” I say, which is the first thing that comes to mind, but sounds really stupid after I utter it.  “Um.  Where do you think you are?  Are you concussed, maybe?”

She breathes out, grimaces again, and then I remember the paper towels and very slowly, very carefully, press them to her leg.  She makes a low groan but doesn’t move a muscle, and I feel like I’m going to be sick for a moment, because the towels soak up so much blood.  I glance up at her—she’s gone pure white for a moment.

Her gaze flicks to mine, and though she’s obviously in a great deal of pain, her full lips curl up at the corners again into a small, soft smile.

“Thank you,” she whispers to me, her voice so low that before I can catch myself, I shiver a little at the sound of it.

“I…I haven’t done anything,” I manage, patting the paper towels onto her leg.  If I stare down at the paper towels, maybe the warmth in my cheeks will lessen.

“Yes,” she whispers, and suddenly her hot fingers are beneath my chin, and she gently leverages my gaze upward.  She searches my gaze, her own eyes so intense and burning that I feel transfixed beneath them.  “You saved my life,” she whispers.

The spell is broken, because she leans back suddenly against the couch with another low groan, holding tightly to her side.  Bright red blood, fresh blood, begins to leak out between her fingers and over her hand.

“Oh, my god, I’ve got to get you help…” I gasp, staggering upright and running toward my purse, my cell phone, that I left on the little table in the entryway.  “I’m going to call for an ambulance, and we can get you to the hospital, and you’re going to be okay, okay?  I promise—” I begin, but I’m cut off.

“Hospital?  What is a hospital?”  She shakes her head, leans forward again as I fish my phone out of my purse and come back to her, crouching down in front of her again.  Now I can see that there’s a wolf tail woven in with her ponytail, the silver pelt bright against the darkness of her hair.  I stare at that wolf’s tail for a long moment before I punch “911” into my phone.

She reaches across the space between us and takes my hand, curling her fingers over my phone, tightly this time.  “Please,” she says then, her voice so tired and quiet, “what is a hospital?”

“You must be so badly concussed…”  My hands are shaking, and I keep swallowing—my mouth has suddenly gone completely desert-dry.  “You know…a hospital.”  I turn my other hand in the air as I grapple with the words.  How do you describe what a hospital is to someone?  I just want to jog her memory.  Maybe if I can jog her memory…maybe she has amnesia?  “A hospital,” I tell her, licking my lips.  “It’s where they can fix you, make you better, stitch up your leg—”

“No,” she growls adamantly.  This causes her to cough, which she does twice, then doubles over for a moment, holding tightly to her side.  She flexes her jaw, gritting her teeth together as she sits up again, pinning me to the spot with her gaze.  “I cannot go there—I have not time…” she shakes her head, locks eyes with me again as she trails off.  What she asks next comes completely out of left field:  “What is your name?”

My heart skips a beat, and then it decides to catch up with the beat it missed by pounding blood through me at a heart rate that should probably kill me.  I’m flushed so red by that simple question.  God, I’m hopeless.

I’m so attracted to her that I can’t even bear it.

“Holly,” I whisper.  I clear my throat, try again:  “My name is Holly.”

“Holly,” she whispers back to me, voice low and velvety like a growl.  Hearing her say my name, tasting the sound of my name, does something inside of me, and a small shiver moves through me as she squeezes my hand gently.  “Please don’t call for the hospital,” she says then, her voice still low as she continues to search my eyes, holding my gaze with her own piercing one.  “Please.  I do not know where I am, but I am certain that I should not be here, and going to the…the hospital would further complicate matters that are already very complicated.”

She flexes her jaw and grimaces as she presses her hand over the hole in the shirt beneath her armor, the hole that blood keeps pumping through.  “I must make chase after the beast.  I have no idea where he is, what damage he may be causing, and it’s my responsibility…”  She actually tries to stand just then, rocking back and then forward.  I’m too shocked that she’s even trying to jump to my feet and try to help her, but she doesn’t get very far.  She grimaces and slumps back against the couch cushions, making a soft, sort of strangled cry, going even whiter, if that was possible as she sinks back.

She actually looks like she’s going to black out as she leans forward a little, her strong jaw clenching to keep in another cry, and I don’t know what to do, so I run my fingers through my hair, shake because I’m absolutely freezing in my soaked bathrobe, and—I realize just then—absolutely nothing else.  I’m only wearing a soaked bathrobe in front of this stranger, not that it really matters.  But still, I gather the robe closer about myself with shaking fingers as I try to figure out what I should do.

“What’s your name?” I murmur, the only normal words I can think of in a completely abnormal time and place and situation as she stares at me with her ice-blue eyes that I keep falling into.

“Virago,” she murmurs, closing those eyes as she whispers her name between us.

“Um…” I falter, blinking.  I keep being mesmerized by her lips, by her voice, and it’s then that I remember that she just said “beast.”  “Is that your stage name?  Um…”

She sinks back into the couch, closes her eyes, breathes out for a long moment.  “I have to find the monster…it’s my responsibility…” she repeats.  She’s shaking, and her tan looks so sallow now, in the light.  She’s too pale—she’s pale because she’s losing so much blood.  But she’s so adamant about not going to the hospital.  “I must find him…” she whispers again.

Him.  The beast?

Beast?

I don’t know what to do.  I get up, pace across the living room as I hold my robe tightly around me, pace back across the small space as Shelley whines, glances out the back door.

Beast?  Is that what I saw out in the backyard?  The enormous thing with enormous teeth?

Could this be a dream?

I cross the room to the sliding glass door and draw the blinds down on it, pulling the curtain closed after the blinds.  Still shaking, I run up the stairs to the bedroom, pull out my too-large fleece jacket I got from the local Shakespeare club, my fleece pajama bottoms with the cowboy hat print, black fleece socks with pink polka dots, dive into everything, then dig through my closet until I find the knock-off Snuggie that Carly had thought totally appropriate as a gag Christmas gift a few years ago.  It’s covered in cartoon cats.  I silently thank her, and take it downstairs.

The woman—Virago, I suppose, for now—is fast asleep.  Hopefully not unconscious.  Hopefully she didn’t just faint on my couch from loss of blood.

I mean, I don’t know—maybe she took some drugs, and doesn’t want me to take her to the hospital, because they’d find them in her system?  It’s a plausible answer, and it dances around the idea of “beasts” quite nicely.  Maybe she doesn’t have insurance, and she can’t afford paying for a trip to the hospital.  Maybe she’s…foreign?  Doesn’t really understand the concept of what a “hospital” is, because she’s not familiar with the word?  She does have a soft sort of accent that I can’t exactly place.

I drape the blanket with arms over the woman, and then I turn up the heat, sit down in the chair across from her.  I try to figure out what to do.  I want to take her to the hospital.  She’s breathing evenly now, looks peaceful, but that doesn’t mean anything.  She could be losing a ton of blood, still, even though the wound is sealed.

I fret about this for a long time.  And then I don’t know exactly how it happens—maybe because of the adrenaline or the fear or the completely rotten day.  Or the chamomile tea.

But despite everything…I fall fast asleep.

Read the rest of Holly and Virago’s story in A Knight to Remember!  

A librarian, a warrior woman, and a love story that’s out of this world…

Holly tells herself that the reason she hasn’t asked her girlfriend to move in (after four years of dating) is that she’s too busy–but it isn’t true. A very book-obsessed librarian, Holly has buried herself in so many romantic and magical stories, that at night, she dreams of a woman who will sweep her off her feet–something her indifferent girlfriend has never done. But one night, during an unusually vicious storm, magic and romance appear in Holly’s backyard in the form of a mysterious, gorgeous woman…wielding a sword.

The dashing stranger’s name is Virago. She claims that she’s a warrior on the hunt for a great and terrible beast; that she, and the beast, slipped through a portal from their world into ours. Holly isn’t sure what to believe, but she is now responsible for a (possibly crazy) swordswoman who is bewildered by modern-day conveniences like escalators, but not by the chivalry of sweeping a woman off her feet.

Can Holly help Virago find her own world again, or will that falling-in-love thing get in the way? And, of course, there’s the tiny problem of the beast Virago wounded that is now seeking revenge…

$7.99

Or:

Get A Knight to Remember on Amazon.

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About Bridget Essex

Author of lesbian romances; madly in love with my wife, author Natalie Vivien.
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