PART I – Darkness

The near future…

Fourteen

“This is no time for jokes.”

Nate’s warm bass touched Tiffany’s ears and held her entire body captive for a moment longer than it should have.

“Mouse,” he called to her.

That name was enough to pull her out of her sudden trance.

“Don’t call me that,” she quickly retorted in a low, sharp voice.

“Why?” His quirked his mouth into a small smile.  “It fits you so well.”

Tiffany understood what he meant, but it still negate the pain and horrible memories that accompanied her nickname.  To her, it was more like a brand of shame than a friendly pet name.  If only he knew all that she had suffered and the reasons behind how she had earned that title.

Born just after the collapse of twenty-first century society, Tiffany was petite at birth.  Even so, her father raised her to be tough.  She was a farmer’s daughter and handy with any tool, yet nothing her parents taught her was enough to help her through those first few years after the darkness descended upon the world.  She had her dad’s bright blue eyes with streaks of his blond hair mixed within her dark auburn locks.  Combined with her mother’s exotic American African features made her a lovely prize that many men on nearby homesteads had tried to claim more than once.  Nevertheless it was roaming hoards of the new breed that had finally managed to snatch her from parents’ fierce grip. Gabe and Lexi were quite the pair.  Both were tough and stubborn and had fought to protect her the bitter end.

Years of unmentionable abuse had followed, as they dragged her from one hellhole to another.  Even after being sold several times over and subjected to whatever cruelty her new owner had seen fit to amuse himself with at her displeasure, never once did Tiffany ever cry out.  Never would she give any of them the satisfaction of knowing how much they were hurting her.  She’s as quiet as a mouse they would say when she was passed on to the next set of hands.  Mouse.  She was tagged with that name for all the wrong reasons, and it had followed her even into freedom.

A hand touched the curve of her shoulder, causing her to jump back.

“Hey,” a soothing male voice caught her attention.  “Tiff..it’s only me.  You okay?”

She looked up to see storm gray eyes watching her.  For a moment, she was lost within their raging sea.

“I’m fine,” she said in her usual low, casual tone.  Pulling her shoulder away with a slight shrug, she allowed a few more inches of space to separate her from the man standing too close.

As if offended, or perhaps disappointed by her reaction, Nate moved away as well.  Crossing his arms over the span of his chest, his handsome face turned serious.  Back to the business at hand.

“So why would you tell her to go back to him instead of helping her get out?”

Once she had been assigned as a chamber maid to Ethan’s private housing, Tiffany had made finding a secret escape route her first priority.  Her small height and frame served her position as a spy for the resistance well.  She could slip in and out of rooms unnoticed.  The slim scar along the length of one of her cheeks now served its purpose as well.  Men now turned a lusty eye from her instead of constantly gazing with ravenous desire.  Unconsciously, her fingers touched the mark.  When she realized it also drew Nate’s attention to that spot, she quickly pulled her hand away.

The roots of a mighty oak tree at the edge of the property had dug a natural ditch that burrowed beneath the cobblestone wall surrounding Ethan’s estate.  It was how she managed to arrainge this meeting under such short notice.  It was nearly noon and no one would notice her absence.  It had taken her some time to get use to daylight once more, after having spent so many years in the darkness of a waking nightmare, but she had forced her body to receive the agonizing and healing lashes of the sun one minute, one day at a time over the course of many months.  Fatigue sometimes plagued her, as it was threatening to do now, but for the most part, her aversion to daylight had been almost fully reversed.

“Speak, woman.”  This time, Nate’s voice was gruff and filled with impatience.

“Keep your voice down,” she hissed then narrowed her eyes at him.  “Daywalkers can be executed on sight.”

Not many laws existed, but the few that did were enforced with deadly intent.  The first was that Ethan was to be protected at all times.  No one was allowed near his castle, which was use to serve as a sprawling suburban mansion during the height of the old world.  The second was that, even if sunlight did not outright reject a person, day time travel was strictly forbidden. Anyone who could roam around freely during noonday was considered an enemy of the new state.  A few guards, who were armed from sniper rifles, kept twenty-four hour surveillance around the property’s perimeter.  The oak tree guarded their location from the watch tower.

“I’m well aware of that,” Nate countered then lowered his tall frame so that he could be eye-to-eye with Tiffany.  “What I don’t know is why you betrayed our cause by sending her back.”

“Watch your mouth,” she tossed back to him with bitterness on her tongue.  “You have no idea how much I’m risking my life for that little girl.”

Her use of words seemed to amuse him.  Although Shay was a few years younger than her, she was at least six inches taller than Tiffany.

“Jealousy doesn’t suit you, Tiff,” he said with a smirk.

“I have no reason to be jealous of her.”

Despite her denial, Nate had no idea of how close to the truth he had come.  Since meeting him at the main camp during a planning meeting, Nate had instantly grabbed hold of some unusual possession of her thoughts.  Tiffany didn’t think the emotions that surge within her heart and the moisture that sometimes gathered between her thighs was possible, especially after what she had gone through physically and psychologically at the hands of too many cruel men.  Nonetheless, although she fought against the power that drew her toward him, what she felt toward him was magnetic.  Even more frightening, she sensed that he held the same affection for her.  Eyes were the windows to the soul, and Nate’s were plain with truth.  There was lust in that perrilous gray, but there also so much more than Tiffany was willing to accept.  Yet, even if she had wanted to surrender to the attraction that stirred between them, their affair would be impossible to succumb to.  Nathaniel was destined for another lover.  Someone who was untouched, unclaimed, and pure of body.  Not her.  Never her.  Tiffany knew that she was used and unworthy of his love.  If only he knew the vile things she had been forced to do, he would never look at her with such kindness and longing again.  Disgust would be the only stare he would offer her.  Forget.  She must forget these silly emotions and remember her duty to the cause.

“Fine,” he said, “you win.  I know you’re not that petty.”  Nate’s voice had softened.  He took a step closer and peered down at her.  If it were possible, Tiffany was sure that fiery gaze was meant to ignite her soul with desire.  Before she could stop him, the rough tips of his fingers began a slow trail along the curve of her scarred bronze cheek.  “So tell me what my sweet Tiffany has sorted out for us.”

His velvety words forced her to clench her thighs beneath the short tunic she wore.  A warm trickle threatened to break free from between her glistening folds at any moment.  She was too raptured by his delicate touch to move away.  Her exotic blue and his mesmerizing gray clashed with restrained passion.

“I..have a..new..idea.”  Her soft words fumbled from her quivering mocha-stained lips.

He smiled and she nearly melted at the vision of candy-coated pink that she was aching to taste.

“Ah,” he whispered, his cool breath flowed over her tingling skin, “I knew you would.  Tell me..or do you enjoy teasing me?”

A heartbeat before their treacherous lips collided and burst into a lusty kiss, a horrible screech pierced the air.  It was a female, and she was in terrible pain.

Nate pulled away and turned toward the main house of the fortress.  Carefully peering around the large tree, he tried to tune his ears toward the cry.  Another agonizing gasp filled the air, but he couldn’t lock on to the source, so he turned back to Tiffany with wide eyes.

Nate didn’t recognize the tortured voice, but Tiffany did.  In that moment, a shiver of fear seized her thoughts.  How could she have been so stupid?  Had her jealousy led to this horrible mistake?

“Tiffany, what?”  Nate took her by the shoulders and shook her lightly, trying to bring her attention back to the here and now.  “Who is that?”

Pulling out of his grip, she made fast work of throwing herself back into the burrow and pushing toward the inside of the stone gate.

“Tomorrow,” she called back to him through the slim opening.  “We’ll start working out the details tomorrow.  We only have  few days before the high council arrives to see her.”

Without another word, she dipped in and out of shadows as she set a course back toward the multistory house.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.  She repeated the curse over and over in her head, but she couldn’t decide who she was referring to.  Herself for leaving Shay inside of the torture chamber and neglecting to show her the way out.  Or the woman who was supposed to become the savior of the world for not figuring out an exit from the deadly room before the sun burned her to a crisp.

It honestly didn’t matter at this point.  With those wailing shrieks blasting through the air, there was no way that Ethan wouldn’t find Shay now.  Tiffany just hoped it was alive and scarred rather than dead and useless.

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