Oh. My. God.
This. This was a truly unexpected find.
I was almost afraid to reach out and touch the thin plastic that had kept the creamy white lacey fabric pristine and safe for centuries.
How had something like this survived for more than five hundred years? It should be nothing more than a disintegrating pile of threads, but here it was right in front of me, fully intact. Perfect.
More important, though, how had it come to be in my office and not kept from the eyes of society by the council?
When the handwritten cargo manifest had arrived on my desk this morning, it had hardly been legible. It had been written in pencil, probably by some lazy intern that had been too preoccupied to get a pen, and several places had been rubbed off. All I knew was that the contents were artifacts that were carbon dated to somewhere between the years before the worldwide cyberwar that had changed life here on Earth as we knew it. Not wanting to spend too much time deciphering it, I’d swept it aside and had turned back to more pressing work with the full intention of going back to it later. I hadn’t gotten around to it before there was a knock on my door and a shout from someone outside saying I had a delivery.
Dammit. No time to prep.
When the massive crate had been rolled into my office, I’d raised an eyebrow.
Bigger than I expected, really.
After the delivery man left, I dug through the papers on my desk, searching for the detailed log that had somehow gotten buried. I narrowed my eyes as I tried once again to read it.
There was only one word that caught my eye.
My heart started to pound. I glanced at the door, making sure I was alone.
It was a forbidden word in my city state. To be honest, this shipment probably would have been halted, searched, and destroyed before I could catalog any of it if even a single person had gotten wind of what it contained. Whatever was inside that crate would never be able to be displayed or studied in the museum and if anyone found out I had any of it in my possession, getting fired would be the least of my worries.
I’d be lucky if I survived the night.
There were stories about those who supported the ways of the old world. Some said that they just disappeared and were never heard from again. Some were apprehended by the governing council. Some wound up dead.
I swallowed heavily.
The smart thing to do would be to pretend it had never existed, to send the shipment back to where it came from before anyone got hurt.
But… I kind of wanted to see what was inside before I did that.
This was truly a piece of history. Everything even remotely like it had been lost long ago. I wanted to understand it. It was a part of what made me who I was, and this kind of forbidden knowledge fascinated me.
I’d made a whole career out of it.
I looked over my shoulder, feeling wary, like someone was watching me even though there was no one there. I pulled back my hand when I realized that my door was still open, choosing instead to go and close it quietly as I checked the hallway for anyone that might have seen. It was empty. I closed the blinds, giving myself complete privacy.
I glanced back at the large crate, walking hesitantly toward it. I gripped the sides and turned it away from the door, grateful that it was still on the rolling cart that it had been brought in on by our internal mail service. If anyone walked in, I’d have enough time to hide the contents or at least I hoped I would. It was late enough in the day that most of the museum staff would be clocking out soon. There weren’t many employees that stayed late on a regular basis other than me. The only true regular was my co-worker Corinne, and even then, I often stayed later than she did.
Apart from the security team that monitored the grounds twenty-four/seven, I was always one of the last to leave. Most of the guards knew my face by now and hardly gave me a second glance when I left the building.
Already the sun was beginning its descent. The brilliant glow highlighted the broken fragments of what had once been the moon, the remains of which were now orbiting the Earth in a disjointed ring that spoke to the tumultuous history of our planet. I’d seen faded images in old books of what it had once looked like before it had been blown apart in the war. I’m sure it would have been a magnificent sight in person and a part of me was sad that I would never see it that way.
With a deep breath, I summoned all the bravery inside me that I could manage, and I finally turned back to the crate, allowing myself to really look at the contents for the first time. I held my breath as I took hold of the plastic garment bag that lay on top.
It was heavier than I’d expected. With a soft gasp, I lifted the gown from the crate. Thoroughly stunned, I held it there in front of me for a long moment, just staring at it. My brain felt like it had short circuited. Was this just a figment of my imagination? Was it time for another cup of coffee?
It seemed utterly impossible.
It was a perfectly preserved wedding dress.
And it was real…
The whole concept of brides and weddings and marriages had been lost to the past, a backwards tradition of the old world that the world had turned away from centuries ago. There were no husbands and wives, no children brought up within a family unit. Not anymore. Those had all been eliminated long ago.
It was for the greater good. Domestic violence had become a thing of the past. Society was more productive as a whole when they focused on work rather than everything that came with relationships of that kind.
Procreation was something that was left up to the scientists of the world now. There was no need for a human woman to carry a child, not when the invention of the artificial womb had been discovered more than a hundred years ago. Its utilization had eliminated any sort of common medical issues that a pregnant woman might encounter, be it an injury, sickness, or at worst, a miscarriage. Children were designed and created on an as-needed basis. As a result, many various disabilities and sicknesses had been long since eliminated.
The world was a better place because of it.
That didn’t change my fascination with the past, however. If anything, it probably amplified it.
I stared at the gorgeous relic, fascinated with the intricately sewn lace and bead detail. The top of the gown was designed in an off the shoulder style, with long sleeves made of thin lace. The bodice was a beautiful heart shape lined with a cream-colored material. At the waist, there was a belt of silk with a delicately tied bow at the center. My gaze drew down to the embroidered skirt and the mountains of tulle beneath it.
The gown reminded me of the dress Cinderella had worn to the king’s ball, except white rather than blue. I’d found a physical copy of the movie in the museum archives, a video cassette tape that I’d painstakingly repaired. I’d watched it several times on a restored projector in secret before it had been confiscated by the protectors, a force dedicated to keeping potentially disturbing old-world content from the public.
I still yearned to watch it again to this day, years later.
The dress was pristine. The plastic garment bag must have acted as a thick barrier, keeping it safe from the elements, the extremes of nature and the advance of insatiable insects that would have destroyed such a beautiful thing. With a heavy sigh, I folded it back up and placed it to the side, tracing my fingers over its surface.
The crate had been shipped from somewhere outside of the desert in the southwest corner of North America. I sniffed the contents and sneezed. It was still dusty.
Several of the books beneath the dress were covered with a thick layer of it.
I rifled through the books inside. Many of them were falling apart. Several of the paperbacks were held together by no more than a thread. Many of them appeared to be of the romance genre, a type of book that had fallen out of favor long ago.
One book in particular caught my eye. It was wrapped in a plastic cover and there were several dainty white doilies on the front of it. I knelt on the floor and sat back on my heels, placing it in my lap before opening it to the first page.
It was a wedding album of the very dress I’d been holding in my hands no more than a minute ago.
The woman who had worn it had been beautiful. I knew that she was probably long dead by now, but that didn’t mean anything in that moment. The happiness on her face said everything.
I traced her smile with my finger. I yearned to feel joy like that.
Her long red hair was styled in a partial up-do, her tight ringlets framing her face exquisitely. Bright green eyes shone into the camera as she locked hands with a man in a black suit beside her. I knew enough to guess that it was probably taken some time in the late 1900s or very early 2000s, but I couldn’t be certain. I turned the page, biting my lip to keep my fascinated sigh quiet. I gasped, seeing that the next photos appeared to be captured images from the ceremony itself.
It had been outdoors, rather than in a church like many of the vague references I’d come across in my past work. The brilliant blue of the ocean was in the background, the soft white sandy beach beneath their feet. At least fifty chairs were organized to either side of a carpet-lined aisle. Page after page documented the bride walking down the aisle, the exchanging of rings, the kiss that tied the two together as man and wife.
I sighed. Husband and wife.
My heart fluttered in my chest.
It was the most definitive evidence of an old-world wedding that I’d ever come across in my life. I kept going, wanting to see everything. After the ceremony, the happy couple went off on a journey of sorts. I wasn’t certain which locations they visited, but the regions appeared mountainous and perhaps somewhat Mediterranean. I’d have to do some research to be sure. Maybe what was once Italy or maybe even Greece?
Those places were underwater now.
When I got to the end of the picture album, I paused at the last several pages. The pictures had turned more candid and far more sensual than the rest. One pictured the redheaded woman standing in a corner, her hands on the back of her head. Another was of her lying on the bed, with her lacey panties pulled down in the back, revealing her bare bottom rather salaciously.
She looked nervous. Why would she be nervous?
I swallowed, suddenly anxious that I’d come across something infinitely more dangerous than just evidence of an old-world wedding.
Without breathing, I turned the page once more.
There were only three more pictures, but they were the most shameful things I had ever seen. In the first one, she was over her husband’s knee, completely naked.
Her bottom was red, and his hand was high in the air.
He was spanking her.
I’d heard of such things only in passing and vague references in the books I’d procured in my work as museum curator. I’d brushed them aside, simply noting that it was a barbaric practice that couples occasionally dabbled in long ago. I’d only read about it. I’d never seen it.
Not like this.
I expected her to look angry in the picture, but she didn’t. She looked like she was enjoying herself. Her legs were parted, and the picture was high enough quality that I could see that her thighs were wet.
I swallowed hard.
The second picture was her standing in the corner once more, but her backside was bright red. She was looking back at the person taking the picture. Her lower lip was protruding in a soft pout and her cheeks were damp with tears.
Was she sad? Contrite? Punished?
My own pussy pulsed, and I blanched, pressing my thighs together in mortification at the unexpected feeling. I looked around, but no one was there. Only when I felt sufficiently alone did I turn back to look at the final picture.
She was on her hands and knees on the bed, her bottom cheeks marked with red rectangular lines. Next to her was a folded-up belt and I guessed that the marks on her pale skin were probably from that. His hand was squeezing her right cheek. Everything between her thighs was exposed, from her pussy to the tight little hole of her bottom, but that wasn’t the worst of it.
A man’s seed was dripping down her leg. Not from her pussy, but from her asshole. She was looking back over her shoulder, her eyes glassy, but she wasn’t sad.
In fact, there was a hint of a very satisfied smirk on her face.
Like she had enjoyed herself.
Like she had wanted it.
I slammed the book shut, trying to reconcile with what I’d seen. I sat there on the floor for a long time before I opened the album to that last page again. I stared at the image of her over her husband’s knee, the way she was reaching down to clutch at his ankle, like she wanted to hold on.
This was supposed to be barbaric, right? Abusive?
This picture showed none of that. There was love and adoration in his eyes as he stared down at her, his hand high in the air while her bottom arched up to receive his punishment.
I slipped my hand into the sleeve and pulled out that single picture. I flipped it over and bit my lip when I saw that there was writing on the back.
Our wedding night. May 31, 2007.
I brushed my fingers lightly over the writing. There was nothing that indicated a name or a place, but when I flipped it back over there was only a feeling.
My core tightened inexplicably at the sight of such an intimate experience, and I couldn’t help but imagine how I would feel if I was put in such a position. Would it hurt? Would I like it?
I stared at her round bottom cheeks and the pinkness enveloping them.
My clit throbbed a bit in response.
A sudden knock at the door made the air surge out of my lungs in one long rush. I closed the book as carefully as I could.
“One moment!” I called out. I sounded guilty. My voice was shaking, and I hoped whoever was outside my door hadn’t caught onto that. As quickly as I could, I rearranged the contents of the crate and pulled the cover over the top. Hastily, I took a seat at my desk, taking a second to place my hand over my frantically beating heart. I took one more moment to catch my breath before I called out once more.
The door swung open, and a man strode inside.
No. To call him a man would have been an understatement.
A more accurate term would have been a beast.
“Dr. Vaughn,” he said politely, his voice a quiet rumble that dove right down into the depths of my core.
I stared at him for a long moment, losing myself in the sea of thick mahogany curls on top of his scalp. Unlike the men in my city state, his chin was covered by a beard, giving him a rough aura that made my stomach leap with excitement. With his entry came the muted scent of whiskey and citrus. My thoughts stuttered for a moment trying to identify it.
Cologne. He was wearing cologne.
At a towering six and a half feet tall, he would stand at least a foot above me. Despite his roughness, his attire was professional. A light gray button-up shirt and a pair of black slacks covered his body, but neither piece of clothing did anything to conceal the sheer mass of muscles lying beneath them.
This man was strong. Very strong.
The sudden image of him holding me down just like the bride in the picture for a spanking overcame me, burrowing into my vision and refusing to leave. I shook my head.
I was losing my mind.
Maybe I shouldn’t have looked after all. Maybe that was why it was forbidden.
I swallowed hard, finally remembering myself in the overwhelming veil of silence.
“Yes. I’m Dr. Naomi Vaughn,” I replied. Too quickly. My words seemed rushed.
I prayed he couldn’t tell what I was thinking.
“My name is Ryker Gates. Pleased to meet you,” he answered. I was embarrassed to realize that I was hanging onto every word that left his mouth. I glanced at my computer screen, trying desperately to keep my gaze from ogling his body up and down like he was a tall drink of water in the middle of a radioactive wasteland. Looking at my massive spreadsheet calmed me, but only a little.
To his credit, if he noticed he said nothing.
I glanced at the clock, noticing that it was past four-thirty. The museum would be prepping to close in the next twenty minutes or so.
“How can I help you?” I asked, sitting back as I folded my hands in my lap. He leveled his gaze directly on me and I couldn’t help but feel the heat from it. My pussy clenched as if it was calling for him and I lifted my chin, hoping he couldn’t see me blush.
“The council gave me your name. They said your knowledge and experience would be very useful to my needs.”
His accent was slightly familiar. I couldn’t place it, but one thing I was sure of was that it wasn’t from New Englandia. He was from somewhere else.
“Your needs?” I asked.
Did those needs include using those big broad hands?
Christ. I was really losing my mind.
“May I?” he answered. He gestured to the armchair in front of my desk. I nodded quickly, glancing at the crate beside me anxiously. There was a small corner of the wrapped wedding dress hanging out of it and I blanched a little on the inside, doing my best to cover it up so that he didn’t see.
He took a seat in the armchair in front of me. He didn’t even glance in the crate’s direction, which was a relief, at least somewhat.
“I’m a tenured member of the Pacifica Council. My role is acquisitions and development with a specialization in weaponry development.”
So, he was a foreigner after all.
Pacifica was a younger city state that had been established more than a century ago. Initially, they had kept to themselves, but they had begun to rise in power through the past several years. They’d struggled for a long time to gain a footing in the modern world, mainly because they’d supported policies that my home state, New Englandia and our close allies did not. They were based in the northwest corner of North America and had kept to themselves for a long time. It was rumored that they were making leaps and bounds with their military, and especially with weapons technology.
Much of this was conjecture and whispers I’d overheard in the hallways, but for some reason him sitting here seemed to give credence to the gossip. For the first time, I genuinely started to believe it.
“It is nice to meet you, Mr. Gates,” I began.
“Please. Call me Ryker,” he beamed. There was a disarming quality to his features, a certain easygoing manner that struck me. I didn’t know why, but I felt like I was safe with him.
“Ryker,” I acquiesced, smiling thinly. His grin widened at least tenfold.
With a nod, he settled into the armchair. He folded his hands together in his lap and I couldn’t help but glance down at their roughened surface.
He didn’t have the hands of a man who sat behind a desk.
“I’m not sure what I can do for you. I’m the museum curator for the Natural History Museum of New Englandia. I know little about weaponry or their development,” I said. I wasn’t lying. I knew bits and pieces from old textbooks and sources, but nothing that he probably wasn’t already aware of.
“Your knowledge of twenty-first century history and your expertise in topography is world renowned. I’ve asked in many circles and your name is the only one that is consistently brought up with confidence time and time again.”
I cocked my head, quite taken aback by his compliment. It wasn’t often a stranger said such things. For some reason, it felt heavier coming from him.
“That is good to hear,” I smiled gratefully.
“Let me explain why I’m here. My job is to acquire specialized technologies that have been lost to history. My intel has uncovered the name of a research facility that disappeared in the years of the cyberwar and the subsequent collapse of the old world, but we have no idea where it could be and what exactly was being studied there. All we have is a crumbling piece of paper that hints at certain supplies that could have been used to create weapons long ago.”
“I hoped that you would help me to find it,” he continued. His tone was serious, his expression genuine, which was unexpected.
For some reason, I expected him to be cruel.
I’d never met a man from his part of the country, but I’d heard stories about them.
They were different than we were. Their society was modeled after something that pre-dated the collapse of human society. There were still relationships between men and women, large families, and tradition. In Pacifica, the use of artificial procreation was extremely uncommon, most women choosing to carry their children instead.
It was foreign to me in a way that both fascinated and terrified me all the same.
I glanced at the crate, the sudden image of the pictures flashing through my mind. I started, and he looked at me with concern before I quickly smiled and tried to cover up my embarrassment the best that I could.
“What is the name of the facility?”
I glanced up in his direction. I didn’t let on right away, but I recognized the name or at the very least, I had seen it somewhere before. I’d have to do some searching to find out where, but I kept impeccable notes so it likely wouldn’t take long.
“Is there something you’d like to acquire from the site?” I asked pointedly. I wanted to know what I was getting into before I said too much.
He smiled knowingly. With a start, I noticed that his eyes were the color of a simmering summer storm, a tumultuous slate blue that practically sparkled with his amusement. There were flecks of silver and darker shades of sapphire that reminded me of waves crashing against a white sandy beach.
I glanced back at the clock, needing to look away and wanting to stare into those eyes all at once. They drew me in and that made me feel decidedly off balance.
“You’re everything they said you would be and even more than I expected,” he mused. As if he was remembering himself, he cleared his throat. “There are a few different things I’d like to acquire. One is a solar cell. The other is a fusion reactor.”
My eyes flicked to his. The solar cell was inconsequential, but I knew that the fusion reactor was not. I gazed at him, more wary than before.
“I need you. In return for your expertise, Pacifica is prepared to share the knowledge we obtain with New Englandia,” he explained further.
So, this was the point of this whole meeting.
Pacifica and New Englandia had been tenuous allies for the past several years, but with their growing population and power, there was an unstated rivalry that simmered beneath the surface. If it continued in the manner that it was now, all that tension could result in open war.
This could be very dangerous.
“I will need to consult with the council before I can give my answer,” I replied carefully.
“That is understandable,” he sighed. With a tight smile, he studied me for a moment. “I’m really hoping to work on this with you.”
He seemed sincere, at least. I stared at him, trying to find some ulterior motive, but I saw nothing.
The clock ticked, flashing over to five o’clock. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small piece of thick paper. He slid it across the clear surface of my desk. I took it from him and studied it.
It was a business card.
I looked back at him, raising my eyebrow with confusion. I’d heard of these being used before, but I’d never actually seen one. Most people just linked comm devices.
To be honest, it felt exactly like something he would do.
Something an old-world man would do…
“My details are on the back. I will be available anytime. Please. Don’t hesitate to give my comm a ring if you need anything at all.”
His offer was innocent, but it felt indecent all the same. I smiled in return and shook his hand when he reached for mine, noting his strong grip. When his skin brushed against mine, I jumped, an electric current of sensation racing up and down my arm. My cheeks heated and I couldn’t meet his gaze because I was afraid of what I might see.
Of what I might do if I looked at him right now…
“It was a pleasure meeting you, Mr. Gates,” I said politely, hoping to end this encounter before I utterly lost my head and did something I shouldn’t.
“Call me Ryker. Don’t make me remind you again,” he teased. With a wink, he turned away and walked out the door, leaving me with only one thought.
Or else what?
I hadn’t stopped thinking about Ryker Gates.
His strong hands.
His deep voice.
His all-consuming presence.
Honestly, I just wanted to see him again.
In the days since he had walked into my office, I’d stored and catalogued as much of the crate as I possibly could. I’d stolen several images from the picture album and hid them in secret places in my home, including a few of the woman in the wedding dress as well as all the ones in the last few pages. I destroyed the manifest, leaving no record of the contents remaining behind.
I knew it was dangerous to keep the crate and what it contained in my possession. I spent as much time as I could skimming the books and piecing through the mementos inside it, but I knew I was testing fate by doing so. I took notes, but eventually I knew what I had to do.
With extreme reluctance, I reported the findings to the protector forces. I told them I’d only just opened it after catching up with a backlog of unrelated work and they seemed to believe me. Before I knew it, the crate was gone.
I knew I’d probably never see it ever again.
With that off my plate, I made a call to the council and informed them of Ryker’s request.
They called me in for an in-person meeting the next day. I put on my best suit and arrived a half hour early to meet with my city state’s elected officials.
While the men and women of the council made it clear that my agreement to the whole arrangement was key, it didn’t really feel that way. It almost felt like it was expected of me, that I wouldn’t be a proud supportive citizen of my city state if I should refuse Ryker’s offer.
In the end, I agreed, but not before insisting on one very important thing.
I wanted to accompany Ryker on his journey to the abandoned research facility.
It had been an impulsive request, but I couldn’t stop myself. I’d never left my hometown, and this would be a once in a lifetime opportunity to travel the world and to experience what had become of it, to actually see it rather than read about what once was in books.
If there was a chance to recover classified research that had been lost to history, I wanted to be the one to handle it. I had the training and expertise. It should be me.
Plus, that would give me an opportunity to get to know him better.
I told myself that wasn’t the most important part, but I knew it was a lie the moment I thought it.
I’d taken the council by surprise. They stuttered a bit and called a brief recess.
After about an hour, the council approved my request, but they insisted on providing me with a security team of their choice. They reassured me that they would handpick each member themselves, ensuring my absolute safety on the journey with Ryker into the southwest corner of the continent. I thanked them for the opportunity.
Their final words for me were to make New Englandia proud.
I vowed that I would. I went back to work after it was over.
I didn’t call him right away after that meeting. Instead, I sat at my desk, staring at that business card for a long while before I dialed his number. It beeped several times and I almost hung up in my cowardice, but then he answered, and his voice rumbled through me once again.
I hadn’t realized that I had missed it.
“Dr. Vaughn, I was hoping to hear from you soon,” he purred.
My heart skipped a beat at the sound.
“Mr. Gates,” I answered.
His answering silence made my stomach flip. What was wrong?
Oh, right. He wanted me to call him by his first name.
“I apologize. I meant to say Ryker. I hope you’ve been well,” I quickly corrected myself. It was an innocent mistake, but somehow, it felt naughty. My face flamed and I was thankful that he couldn’t see it.
“I have,” he replied. “I’ve been enjoying much of what your city has to offer.”
“I’m glad to hear that. There is much to do and see here,” I replied a bit pridefully.
“Indeed, there is,” he echoed.
“I met with the council, and they approved our collaboration. There are two additional requirements to the arrangement, however,” I explained, purposefully keeping the fact that it had been my request secret.
“What is that?”
“I am to accompany you. The council will outfit us with an experienced security detail on our journey, neither of which is negotiable.”
“I see,” he replied.
“Is that a problem?” I asked curtly. He cleared his throat.
“No. It’s not an issue. It’s just a bit unexpected.”
I was quiet for a moment. The sudden urge to see him again hurtled through me and there was nothing I could do to stop what came out of my mouth next.
“Would you like to come to my place for dinner tonight?” I blurted out.
“Sure,” he answered smoothly. I couldn’t tell if he liked the idea or hated it, so I kept talking even though everything inside me was telling me to keep quiet.
“I could tell you about the research I’ve uncovered and where I think we should begin our investigations,” I explained quickly, trying to backpedal and recover as fast as I could.
“That would be delightful, Dr. Vaughn,” he replied, his voice cheerful.
“Please. Call me Naomi.”
“With pleasure, Naomi. I’ll see you tonight at six o’clock.”
As I hung up my comm, I was left with the reeling sensation of hearing my name roll off his tongue. In shock, I closed my eyes.
I shifted in my seat, realizing that the seat of my panties was wet.
There was no hope of concentrating on anything for the rest of the day.
I left work early, taking my first afternoon off in probably the last five years. The security guards at the front desk raised their eyebrows in surprise, but they didn’t say anything, and I was grateful for it.
I was still struggling with what hearing Ryker say my name did to me. I shouldn’t be affected by a man simply saying my name. I shouldn’t let the way he confidently strode into my office get to me and I really shouldn’t be thinking about his hands on my naked skin.
These kinds of things didn’t happen here. Even talk of self-pleasure was extremely taboo and only mildly accepted in today’s world.
I’d tried touching myself once, but I hadn’t seen the point.
I took a deep breath and left the museum. My walk home was only a few blocks, and it was over before I was ready for it to be. When I unlocked the front entryway, I went into the kitchen and just stood there for several minutes.
I’d invited him to dinner.
What the hell was I going to feed him?
There were several bottles of unopened wine on the counter, all various gifts that had been given to me at from numerous colleagues over the past several months. I didn’t drink very often, but the sudden urge to enjoy a very full glass rattled through me.
Why was I so nervous?
I opened the fridge and started rifling around. Eventually, I collected enough to start chopping up what would become the fanciest charcuterie board I’d ever seen in my life. One of my favorite cheeses was a local sharp cheddar. Supposedly, it was a recipe that dated back before the cyberwar and the Fall.
I didn’t have enough to make a full dinner, so I ordered a few groceries to be delivered to my door within the hour. Several hours later, I had a bottle of red wine opened and decanted, two nearly overflowing acai bowls and a beautifully presented charcuterie board all set up on the largest cutting board I owned.
I glanced at the clock in my foyer. It was only five-thirty.
With a sigh, I got a glass out of my cupboard and poured a small bit of wine into it. I sat down at the kitchen table, trying to figure out what I was doing and how tomorrow my whole life was going to change.
I’d always thrown myself into my work. In less than five years, I’d risen from unpaid intern to museum curator. I’d excelled at my job and had been rewarded time and time again, both monetarily and with the comforts of life, my home being one of them.
I’d always dreamed of seeing the world beyond the borders of New Englandia even though I knew much of it was a wasteland now—all because of the Fall.
In the late twenty-first century, the world had grown extremely contentious. Country threatened country and cold wars simmered below the surface for years until it finally exploded into an all-out cyberwar, the likes of which the world had never seen. Everything that had been stored in the digital age was lost, forever wiped out. Power grids were shut down for good. Communications faltered. Some people were lucky and could communicate over long distance radio, but those were soon lost as humanity went into a spiraling state of panic. A war that had started digitally soon turned into something real on the ground.
Nuclear weapons were deployed. So many that the records couldn’t quite guess at the true number that peppered the world. Entire cities and whole countries were wiped off the face of the Earth. The only record that remained was their existence on old maps and the occasional reference in an encyclopedia or a textbook.
Food sources dried up. Water was deemed radioactive and unsafe for consumption. Other sources were poisoned. Finding shelter and safety was nearly impossible.
The world collapsed into a state of ruin. For at least a century, the scars of war tainted the land. Society struggled for a long time.
Humanity is resilient, however, and it eventually started to recover. At first, there was a collection of small towns in shoddily fortified safe zones free of radiation, but those grew as the years passed.
Now, a patchwork of city states comprised the world, a confederation of the descendants of survivors that were spread out and separated by vast wastelands in between. Much of the conveniences that had existed before the Fall were reestablished, with some limitations. Electricity, for one, turned off after eleven o’clock at night. Each individual had a daily ration of water and a weekly allotment of food.
It was all meant to keep our city state healthy and sustainable.
World travel was a thing of the past, a rare privilege only entertained by the council and only when necessary. There wasn’t any need for it, really. I had everything I needed right here, but that didn’t stop me from being curious about what lay past our borders.
Even here in my home, there were still scars of the past written deep into the earth. If I climbed up to the roof of my building, I could see the massive perimeter fence that protected our borders. Beyond it, the ground was a dusty bowl gouged out by an explosion from back then, still radioactive enough so that nothing grew anew. I didn’t know what else was out there.
Honestly, I’d never even considered the possibility that I’d ever get to find out.
Someone knocked at my door.
I leapt up to my feet, startled. I nearly knocked over my glass of wine before I set it down and placed my palm over my racing heart.
It was him. He was here.
I groaned inwardly before walking out of my kitchen and over to the front door. It was unlocked. I had forgotten to lock it when I’d come home.
When I opened the door, he was there waiting. In his hands was a beautiful bouquet of flowers. Pristine white roses, hydrangeas, lilacs, blue carnations, and a few others I didn’t recognize.
“Naomi.” He dipped his head.
“Ryker,” I answered, feeling embarrassed despite the fact that he had only said my name in greeting.
“These are for you,” he grinned, passing me the bouquet expectantly. I took it tentatively, probably looking like he had just given me a live snake.
“I don’t understand,” I answered, staring down at the roses. The wind picked up and the soft flowery scent whirled around me. It was calming in a way, and impossibly sweet.
“I know it is not your custom, but I wanted to bring you something nice in exchange for dinner and opening up your home to me.”
I nodded, not knowing what else to do.
“Come in,” I beckoned. He reached for the door and walked past me, brushing against my forearm in the process. An electric current passed through my body, and I shivered, sensation spiraling deep down into my core. I turned my face away, terrified that he might sense something if he could see me.
“You have a beautiful home. Very modern.”
“Thank you. The council gifted it to me on the day I was promoted to museum curator,” I explained.
“You should be very proud of the work you have accomplished during the course of your career,” he said, and this time, there was nothing I could do to stop the heat from rushing straight to my face. Flustered, I stared down into the flowers.
“I must confess. No one has ever given me flowers before,” I blurted, needing to say anything to divert the conversation from the effect he was having on me simply by complimenting me. He smiled, his expression softening.
“The first thing you need to do is get them in some water. Do you have a vase?” he offered gently.
I furrowed my brow and shook my head.
“Mind if I peek through your cabinets?”
I nodded quickly, a bit taken aback by his kindness.
If anything, he was the perfect gentleman.
The kind I’d read about in one of my stolen romance novels.
I watched as he opened several of my cabinets, searching until he found an oversized glass pitcher I’d used to make strawberry lemonade at the summer equinox gala that the museum had organized to garner donations from the public. It had been a massive hit.
He strode over to the kitchen sink and started filling it with water. He used a little more than I anticipated, and I hoped I’d have enough to take my usual hot shower at the end of the day. When he finally shut it off, a sigh of relief escaped me. He carried the pitcher over to the island, placing it directly in the center. He beckoned for me to come closer.
“May I?” His hand stopped inches from mine, the one clasped around the stems of the bouquet. I nodded quickly and handed them to him.
When his fingers brushed against mine, that same electric current hurtled through me once again.
I froze. I hadn’t really believed it was real the first time, but there was no denying it now. There was something between us, something that I didn’t quite understand and didn’t know if I was ready to confront.
He said nothing, instead unwrapping the silk bow from around the base and arranging the bouquet within the pitcher. By the time he was done, I could have sworn the flowers bloomed brighter. The sunlight through the window caught them just so and I gasped in wonder.
The whole thing reminded me of a faded picture in a book long ago, a meadow full of wildflowers swaying in the breeze.
I smiled gratefully.
“There. All you need to do is change the water every few days and these should last a while,” he explained.
“Where did you even get such a thing?”
“I had to walk the people through it at the garden center. They made a few mistakes along the way, but I think it turned out well,” he answered.
I knew the place he was talking about. It was a center for propagating plant life. Most of the gardens had a role, such as a medicinal one, or a manufacturing one. None of our plant life was grown for the sole purpose of looking pretty on someone’s counter.
It seemed almost wasteful…
But I liked it. It had been a gift from him, and I would treasure that. At least, in secret.
I glanced up into those ocean eyes. He was watching me.
“Would you like a glass of wine? I prepared a charcuterie board for us to enjoy before our meal,” I said quickly, wanting to distract him from whatever he might have seen written all over my face right then.
“That would be lovely,” he answered. He took a few steps back and sat down at the table. With a bit more distance in between us, I felt more comfortable, but I couldn’t deny there was a powerful yearning to reach out and move closer to him despite that.
I ignored it the best I could by distracting myself. I poured hearty glasses for the both of us, knowing that I would need a little liquid courage to get through whatever this night was. I didn’t even really know what my intentions were for having him over. I didn’t know what to do or say. He made me nervous, not because he was scary or rude or cruel in any way, but because I was drawn to him in a way I’d never been drawn to any man before.
I carried the glasses over and fetched the wooden cutting board chock full of dried fruits, meats, and cheeses. He popped a piece of sausage into his mouth, chewing it thoughtfully before he took a sip of red wine.
I wanted to say something, but I didn’t know what. The man vexed me.
“Do you want to tell me a bit about Cressida?” he asked, breaking the tension after a long moment of silence. He cocked his head and I smiled gratefully.
“Yes. I do,” I replied, taking a moment to clear my throat and gather myself as quickly as I could before I continued. “I dug into my archives, and I found only a handful of mentions of such a place. The exact GPS location was classified, but I did find hints to its location in the southwest corner of North America.”
“To my knowledge, no one has traveled that far in a very long time,” he replied.
“I can show you the maps tomorrow that give vague coordinates at best. For now, though, I can show you a scanned copy on my work tablet. It’s not as good as the real thing, but it would at least give you a better idea of where I’m talking about.”
I got up and I felt his gaze following me. I lowered my eyes to the floor and wrapped my arms around my waist as I walked into the other room and retrieved it off my desk. On the way back, I tapped in the passcode with my fingertip and dug into my records, scrolling until I found the map I was looking for. I opened the file and zoomed in on the area in question.
“Before the Fall, this section of North America was known as Arizona. Cressida Labs is a bit north of a city once called Phoenix, near the Sedona region. This particular area was lush with greenery, unlike the more barren desert much further south,” I explained, pointing to a spot on the map.
“There wasn’t much around this place before, was there? From this map, it seems like it was hidden in the more wooded green areas, right?”
“Yes. It would have taken quite a while to get to unless they had some sort of airplane runway or a helipad somewhere to move people in and out.”
“I’m not sure how this area fared in the war,” he murmured, his voice thoughtful.
“I didn’t come across many current records of it in my search,” I responded.
“Pacifica might have a few resources at their disposal that we can make use of.”
I tempered my excitement at having access to something like that. New Englandia would keep a tool like that deeply under wraps, probably only in the hands of the council or the protectors. Someone like me would never be able to access it.
“That would be great,” I said.
He popped a big green olive into his mouth. I didn’t realize I was staring at his lips until he started to smirk.
“Enough about work, though. We can come up with a plan together tomorrow morning at your office. I want to know more about you, Naomi,” he coaxed.
I blushed unwittingly. There it was again, the quiet purr of my name on his tongue.
“What about me?”
I couldn’t even imagine what a man like him would want to know about a girl like me.
“What do you like to do in your off time? On the weekends?”
I cleared my throat again. There wasn’t much to know about me other than work. I got up in the morning, brewed a pot of coffee, and went to the office. I ate the nutritionally sound meals prepared in the cafeteria at lunch, took a second meal to my office for dinner, and worked all day until it was time to go home and go to bed. There wasn’t much time for anything else, but there was one single thing I could think of.
“Sometimes, on the weekends when the museum is closed, I like to volunteer at the animal extinction prevention facility.”
“Do you have a favorite animal?” he asked, cocking his head with interest.
“The wolves. Once mostly wild creatures, they’re more domesticated than people realize. Once, I was invited to be a handler for one of the females in the pack.”
“Did she have a name?” he asked.
“Mishka,” I grinned.
“You should introduce me to her one day. I’d love to meet her,” he replied.
“Really? Most people think it’s a lost cause, but the center is simply trying to retain animal life for as long as necessary until they can repopulate the rest of the planet.”
“I don’t think it’s a lost cause. Animal life is important.”
“What’s it like? Outside the border?” I asked.
“Have you never seen any of it?”
“No. Outside travel isn’t really allowed.” I shook my head.
“I forget how different your city state is from mine,” he mused. He looked at the flowers on top of the island, his expression soft and nostalgic. “Some areas are just as you would imagine it would be, devoid of all life, nothing but a dust bowl of radiation and dirt. Some areas are slow to recover, but the signs are there. Fresh shoots of grass breaking through the earth, a colorful weed here and there, the first hints at tree life growing once more. Other places have rebounded, lush and fertile from volcanic ash and fire, untouched from humans in hundreds of years. Pure wild nature,” he continued.
I swallowed a mouthful of wine, enjoying the way the honeyed cheese brought out the blackberry undertones of the red wine and for some reason, it made me feel braver.
“You mentioned how very different your home is than mine. Is it as old world as they say it is?” I pressed.
“Old world,” he echoed. He lifted a brow, studying me for some hint as to my intent. I turned my gaze down, picking at the food that lay before me. I settled on a dried date, dipping it in a little bit of jam before I popped it into my mouth.
“Yeah. You know, marriage and families and pregnancies outside of labs.” I flushed.
“I see. You’re curious about all of that, aren’t you?” he asked.
For some reason, the way he said it felt like I was asking for something I shouldn’t.
“I am,” I admitted. I kept my eyes downcast, choosing instead to swirl the wine around in my glass. It was a thicker red wine and the liquid dripped down the sides slowly, indicative of a higher alcohol content.
I probably should have looked at the bottle before deciding on this one. I hoped it wasn’t going to my head already.
“Unlike New Englandia who prides their people on work productivity and physical health, Pacifica places a much higher regard on the human experience and that includes interpersonal relationships like family,” he explained.
I took another sip of wine before placing it down on the table. I bit the inside of my cheek as I pushed it away slightly, choosing to eat a little bit more instead.
It was a fascinating, but wholly forbidden subject. I had never been able to fully study it or even grasp at its true meaning. Books and pictures only scratched at the surface of it, but this man had experienced it.
“Do you remember your mother and father?” I asked.
I didn’t have either. I’d been created in an artificial womb and brought up by the state in their specialized institutions for the rearing of children. I’d been given the best teachers, the best medical care, and everything I could have ever needed as a child.
Except for a family.
My teachers were the only people that could come close to such a thing, but it wasn’t the same.
“I do. They are still alive and back home today. My mother is probably chasing my father around the house with her mile-long to-do list as we speak,” he grinned.
“Were they… married?” I asked, lowering my voice in the end in case anyone might be passing by and could hear me.
“Yes. They are most certainly married. I’ve heard the story of their whirlwind romance so many times that I could probably recite it in my sleep,” he laughed, deeply amused. There was so much joy written all over his features when he talked about his parents. It felt almost contagious in a way.
“Can I tell you a secret?” I asked, blushing. As soon as I said the words, I wanted to take them back, but it was already too late.
“Of course,” he answered while raising a single eyebrow in curiosity. It made my stomach pitch forward in knots.
“The idea of a bride has always fascinated me. It’s a forbidden concept here, but it excites me to think about tying myself to a man that way, about what love might mean between a man and a woman,” I confessed.
He took a long draw from his glass before placing it down on the table. His eyes narrowed, the blue of his gaze swirling with surging storm clouds. His aura instantly changed from a gentleman to something that felt infinitely more dangerous.
“I’d like to ask you something, Naomi, and I want you to be honest with me,” he began. His expression was very serious, and I worried that I might have crossed some line that I didn’t know had even existed.
“Okay.” I sat back warily, fidgeting with my fingers on the table before pressing them into my lap.
“Have you ever been kissed?”
My mouth went dry just as my face burned scarlet. Unable to speak, I shook my head and stared down at my hands, hopeful that would be enough for him.
He stood up from his chair and took a single step toward me.
“Come here, Naomi. Take my hand,” he coaxed.
I jerked my head up, startled at his request. His sultry gaze captured mine and before I knew what I was doing, I was standing up and walking toward him. I watched my feet move, feeling as I was looking at a stranger’s until I eventually realized they belonged to me. I gasped anxiously when his fingers boldly wound around mine, pulling me close against him.
My breasts pressed against the hard lines of his chest.
“Ryker, what are you doing?” I breathed, terribly unsure of what was happening.
What I hoped might be happening…
“Your innocence is so very tempting,” he murmured.
I opened and closed my mouth, completely at a loss for words. In a fraction of a heartbeat, his face was descending toward mine. I would have pulled away, but he had an arm wound firmly around my waist, his palm splayed wide across my lower back.
“I think I’m going to have to taste it.”