Amelia gagged at the smell of blood. She backed away from the gruesome scene, clamping a hand over her mouth. A scream built in her throat, but no sound escaped. Shock set in, causing her whole body to tremble. A chill rolled through her and she struggled to make her legs work. After a few forced steps, she was moving, and fast.
She ran out into the foggy morning to see a dark form drifting through the mist, heading straight for her. Amelia blinked, recognizing the woman who approached by her ridiculous flaring skirts. Only one person in the village dressed so outlandishly.
“Beatrice?” Amelia squinted and her pulse increased.
Sure enough, Beatrice emerged from the fog, a smug smile painted on her face. A sharp sense of foreboding pierced Amelia. This was no ordinary encounter, so early in the morning, and so soon after discovering a crime had been committed. A murder.
“Good morning, Amelia,” Beatrice whispered in a conspiratorial tone. “I trust you found Mrs. Embers’ body?”
Amelia felt ill. “Yes. She’s dead. How—how did you know?” She couldn’t believe the elderly seamstress she’d worked for was dead, let alone brutally murdered in her own shop.
Beatrice grinned and played with a ribbon in her hair. “I entered her shop to see if my new dress was finished and witnessed you attacking the poor woman. I managed to get away and outrun you—barely. I’m lucky to have escaped with my own life.”
Realization dawned, and it was as cold as the mist swirling around them. “You’re setting me up,” Amelia hissed. “Mrs. Embers would’ve been your mother-in-law. Why do this?”
“She’s meddlesome and has long insisted Rayson take two or three wives. I refuse to share him, especially with you.”
“Yes,” Beatrice spat. “Mrs. Embers convinced Rayson to include you in our marriage ceremony next week. He was supposed to ask you today. You see, Amelia, I killed a few nasty birds with one stone this morning. Some nastier than others.”
Amelia glanced up and down the street. The fog was beginning to lift, and she could make out the outline of shops and houses from behind the thick white blanket. The church steeple stood out at the end of the street, reminding Amelia that her word wouldn’t hold up against Beatrice’s. Amelia was an orphan, and she’d been in trouble with the village elders before for committing petty crimes over the years. In stark contrast, Beatrice was the priest’s youngest, beloved daughter, and she’d never been in trouble a day in her life. Amelia had heard rumors that Beatrice was a backstabber, but she would’ve never guessed the girl was capable of coldblooded murder.
“You’re horrible,” Amelia said, her temper rising. “Mrs. Embers was a kind woman. She didn’t deserve this. And if Rayson wants to take ten wives, it’s his right to do so!”
“I hear voices,” Beatrice smirked.
Amelia froze, holding her breath. The village was waking up, and the fog lifted more with each second.
“I’ll give you a two-minute head start before I scream,” Beatrice said, winking. “Run fast.”
Amelia had no choice. If she didn’t run, a noose would tighten around her neck before the rising sun burned away the last of the fog. Survival instincts kicked in, and she bolted between houses and out of the village. The huge forest swallowed her after a few minutes of running. She stumbled over roots and underbrush, but didn’t stop once.
Entering the forest brought her a small amount of relief, taking the edge off her terror. The forest was thick and dark, providing plenty of hiding places. Even though there were lots of places to hide, the more space she put between herself and the village, the better.
Sickening thoughts swirled in her head as her heart pounded and her chest ached in breathless agony. Poor Mrs. Embers was dead. The villagers thought Amelia was a murderer, and Rayson Embers would unsuspectingly wed his own mother’s killer. Amelia was an outlaw, and a price had probably already been levied on her head. The Head Elder would rush outside and yell, “Ten pieces of gold!” or “Twelve pieces of gold!” Justice was served swiftly in the village, and in Amelia’s opinion, almost never fairly. She shuddered to think how many pieces of gold would be put on her head, and how many bounty hunters would trail her through the forest.
She prayed to the Goddess for their failure, muttering her plea in between heavy gasps.
Branches tore at her arms and scratched her face. She ran blindly, having never been inside the forest. Deeper and deeper she ran straight into the unknown, tearing her way through a darkness that promised eventual horrors. Try as she might, she wasn’t able to push away the frightening stories about the forest she’d heard her whole life. She’d always yearned to leave the village, but the only escape was through these woods, these reportedly haunted woods that huge, deadly beasts called home. Wolves, bears, large cats, and possibly, a race of barbarian men banished from the villages of civilized men long ago. Were the stories about the forest and these terrible creatures true? She had a feeling she’d find out soon enough. Much too soon enough.
She ran and ran. In her imagination, death was chasing her as she barreled ahead into a place no human belonged. If only people lived in the woods, if only she knew in which direction to run to find an opening in the forest that would lead to another village. A vision of a huge, hairy barbarian man flashed in her mind, and she again wondered if such creatures really lived amongst the trees. Amelia had seen proud hunters swagger down the street with bears, wolves, and cats, but never a barbarian man. Perhaps if they existed, they avoided village folk like her. She sincerely hoped they were a myth. Contending with the four-legged predators was a bad enough prospect.
When running became complete anguish, Amelia paused to lean against a massive trunk. She fought for air and tried to get her bearings. Shadows danced around her, and she imagined they were the ghosts of the forest, here to give her a new fright. She didn’t know how to stay alive here, in the wilderness, but she didn’t know how to stay alive if she left either.
Beatrice had sentenced her to death, despite the head start.
The aching in her chest gradually lessened, and she glanced around warily. A few rays of sunlight pierced through the trees in the direction she’d been running from, bringing her hope. The forest would be less frightening with a little more light. Just as she latched onto this new hope, a noise stopped her breathing cold.
A rustling in the underbrush. Footsteps and—oh, no—a deep growl rumbled through the air, stirring the leaves and shaking the ground. Amelia’s heart leapt to her throat, and she continued to hold her breath, listening and praying. And praying some more.
Anger and fear combined in her chest. She wasn’t ready to die so soon. Glancing around, she spotted a large tree with numerous branches spaced close together, leading up to treetops concealed by darkness and mist. She swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and lunged for the first limb. The terror of more growling reached her, propelling her to the second and third branches, and up and up. Maybe the Goddess would turn her into a bird once she reached the top. It was a beautiful idea, to be able to take flight at the first sign of danger. To be able to fly out of darkness and into light, into hope.
Enough daydreaming, she thought. Keep climbing. Don’t stop.
She reached for the next branch, but touched something sticky. Instinctively, she pulled away, yanking her hand out of a web with a pop. Oh, Goddess. A web. Not just any web—a freakishly huge web. She wasn’t an expert in wild forest creatures, but any idiot knew a giant web meant a giant spider.
A hiss floated down from above, and a split second later another growl from below shook the tree. She cursed at her bad luck. An unknown beast on the forest floor and a presumably huge spider wanted to eat her. Bounty hunters were probably chasing her too. And the Head Elder had probably already called for her hanging. Her day couldn’t possibly get any worse.
The spider wasn’t visible through the branches above, but it hissed again, louder this time. Amelia reached for a small branch, hoping to break it off for use as a weapon. But just as the limb broke free, the tree shook with so much force that she lost her footing.
Falling fast, she screamed and closed her eyes. She landed. Except she didn’t. Not really. It wasn’t a hard, bone-crushing impact. The air didn’t rush from her lungs, but panic had her gasping as she tried to make sense of what had happened. She tried to open her eyes, but the whole world faded and she slipped into darkness.
* * *
Amelia drifted. Voices reached her ears, but she couldn’t discern a single word, let alone a complete sentence. She was warm and surrounded by feathers. Or so it seemed. She had to be dreaming. She saw the village, the little houses and shops passing by. A flash of a woman’s face with eyes blue and more radiant than the sky on the clearest summer day. Her mother? Alarm flickered in those magnificent blues, and pain followed. The eyes closed. Forever. The woman was gone. Dead. Amelia reached out, as if to bring the woman back, but black, fur-covered appendages came into focus next, crawling closer. Hissing.
The spider. Was Amelia trapped in its web?
She began to kick her legs and flail her arms, and more voices approached, deep and most definitely male. Bounty hunters? Was she to be hanged in exchange for a few wretched pieces of gold?
“Beatrice,” she tried to say. “It was Beatrice.”
The hissing faded with the image of the spider, and the sound of slamming replaced it, like a door being shut hard. A door!
A door meant a room. A room meant a house. And a house meant people. What was happening? Her mind raced to keep up with events she had no control over. Images and sounds that left as rapidly as they came.
She was falling to the forest floor once more, and when she expected to hit the bottom, her eyes shot open as she jolted to wakefulness. She expected to see bounty hunters, or a spider, or a fierce beast with an appetite for human flesh, but she didn’t see any of those things. Blinking, she struggled to sit up and take in her strange surroundings more fully. She was tucked into a massive bed, the mattress soft and feathery beneath her. The silky sheets covering the bed caressed her as she stretched. A thick red blanket was draped over her body, pulled up to her neck. The bedding smelled fresh, like lilac and roses.
The room was dim, and empty. She wondered if she’d imagined the deep male voices. But someone had brought her here. She sat up, appreciating the softness of the luxurious pillows behind her back. She didn’t know anyone who owned such exotic fabrics and décor. The room actually had paintings. Her eyes bugged as she gazed around the spacious area, awestruck by the ornate furniture, bizarre-patterned rugs, and rich velvet drapes that covered the entire length of one wall. She wondered if a window was hidden behind them. Surely no window could be so wide.
A lantern flickered on a small table beside the bed, and across the room, about a dozen lanterns glowed along a wall, in between paintings of foreign landscapes. The urge to explore the room became overwhelming, and Amelia threw back the covers to escape the confines of the bed. Puzzled, she stared down at the white nightdress she wore. Someone had removed her clothing, and that same someone had dressed her in a nightdress fit for a queen. Except there weren’t any queens anymore. Or kings. Not for more than five hundred years, when the great haunted forest swallowed up their castles, leaving the villages cut off from one another, and from their kings, queens, and other nobility who once ruled. Or so the stories claimed.
Her feet hit the cool stone floor, and excitement skittered through her. Her arms and legs ached, evidence of her trek through the forest and her fall through the trees. She wiggled her toes and smiled, standing up to creep toward the drapes. She felt like an explorer on the ends of the Earth, about to discover the secret to life, or the truth about the kings and queens of long ago. She paused in the center of the room and spun in a slow circle. Relief washed through her as she realized she hadn’t been captured by a bounty hunter, and she knew she wasn’t in the village either. The room was larger than any structure in the village, and a bounty hunter wouldn’t keep her so well-clothed, or put her to rest in a room full of wonders. Anyone who could afford such a place didn’t need the few measly gold coins her capture promised.
She reached the drapes and searched for an opening, parting the heavy fabric. She gasped. It was a window, and it was night, and the stars had never looked more magnificent. Sparkling white diamonds marked a vast, black velvet sky that stretched on and on. She froze in place and continued to stare, and for a moment, her troubles disappeared. Drifted up into the beautiful night.
In the village, torches and lanterns lined the perimeter to scare away the forest beasts each night, and the ensuing glow chased away the stars. Amelia had only glimpsed the night sky at its full glory a handful of times, the times she’d been brave enough to slip out of town to a meadow that led to the forest. She remembered how wild she felt each time, lying on her back in the tall grass as she gazed at the sky. It was forbidden for anyone but the hunters to leave the village limits. The fifth time she tried to sneak away, she was caught and locked up in the tiny jail beside the courthouse for two days. One of many lessons the elders tried to teach her.
A thrill pulsed through her. She had the stars now, and she was far away from the village. She was an outlaw. Wanted for murder. Though innocent, the idea left her feeling rebellious and confident enough to face whoever had brought her to this room. She wouldn’t be a coward.
A sigh left her throat as she stood captivated by the night, and oddly, filled with hope, despite her uncertain future.
“The lady awakes.”
Amelia gasped and started, spinning around to locate the source of the frighteningly deep voice. A tall man with broad shoulders stood in the center of the room, his black eyes dancing with humor. Her gaze swept over his huge form, and her heart skipped a beat as he drew nearer. She backed against the window, her palms flat against the cool glass. She’d never seen a man so large in all her life.
“Who are you?” she asked, steeling her voice. A chill had crept into the air, and she shivered and wished he’d stop walking to her.
“My name is Gavin. And you are…?” Again, the deepness of his voice astonished her. It didn’t sound human, and this thought chilled her to ice.
“A-Am-Amelia.” She flushed, embarrassed that she had stuttered. So much for being brave. The urge to flee this room and escape Gavin became unbearable. She fought for each breath as her panic rose higher and higher.
“What village are you from?” He towered over her and blocked out the light of the nearby lanterns.
Amelia opened her mouth to answer, then smartly shut it. Outlaws didn’t give anything away, and she certainly didn’t wish for Gavin to return her to her village. Impatience flashed in his dark depths, and he grabbed her chin, pinching it between two large fingers.
“You will tell me where you are from. Now.”
She shook her head and tried to escape his grasp, but he held firm. “It doesn’t matter where I’m from because I have no intention of returning.”
He released her, took a step back, and laughed. “Good. Because you’re not free to go. My brother wants to keep you.” His grin filled her with foreboding.
“Your brother?” she asked, panic clutching her heart anew. One of them was bad enough.
“Yes. His name is Trent. He’s asleep right now. The man can’t keep his eyes open once the sun sets.” He shrugged. “I’m the same way when the sun rises through the trees.”
Confusion whirled through Amelia as a memory struggled to resurface. The fact that his brother couldn’t stay awake at night meant something. Likewise, it meant something that Gavin couldn’t stay awake during the daytime. A song, a faint tune from her childhood, played on the fringe of her mind, the memory taunting her.
Two brothers. One of the light. One of the night.
She closed her eyes and tried to recall the rest of the song, but it faded completely. She remembered the title of the song though.
“The Banded Men,” she whispered. No. It couldn’t be. The Banded Men died out centuries ago. Her heart thudded as she peered up at him, wondering if perhaps they hadn’t all died out. She studied him. He was huge all over. A strip of leather held his long black hair in a low pony tail. Dark stubble peppered the lower half of his face, and he was dressed in black. His eyes glimmered, standing out against all his darkness, like the stars in the sky she’d just admired.
Gavin sighed. “Yes. I take it you’ve heard stories about our kind. You humans sure do like your stories.”
Amelia repressed a shudder. She’d heard plenty of stories about Banded Men, most of them bad. They were a savage race of men, not quite human. Sons were born in pairs, and daughters came into the world alone. The pair of brothers shared a unique bond, though as Amelia understood it, they barely had contact with one another. One brother was nocturnal, and the other stayed awake during the daytime. They had one mate—a woman they shared, one of the women who’d been born into the world alone.
My brother wants to keep you.
Gavin’s admission rang out in her head again, repeating over and over. If Trent wanted to keep her, that meant these Banded Men didn’t have a mate. She swallowed hard and hoped Trent changed his mind.
“Did Trent bring me here?” she asked, suddenly feeling faint. Gavin noticed her unsteadiness, and he led her to the bed with an arm wrapped around her waist, holding her up. She sank down on the mattress, her senses thrumming with fear. Goosebumps raised on her arms at his unwelcome touch.
“Yes. Trent found you in the forest.” He chuckled, the rumble reverberating through her insides. “He says you were caught between a spider and a cat.”
Annoyance surged over her and she glared up at him. “It was a big spider and a big cat.” He didn’t need to know she hadn’t actually laid eyes on the creatures.
He leaned down, bracing a hand on each side of her, pinning her against the headboard. “Everything is bigger in the forest. The beasts. The insects. The men. And the deeper you go into the woods, the bigger and deadlier they all get.”
“Are you trying to scare me into wanting to stay here? Because that’s not going to work. I want to leave. Now.” She ducked her head under his arms and rolled away, all the way off the mattress. Gavin stood up, the bed separating them. Of course, the stupid door was on his side of the bed, and she needed to move quickly and dart past him if she hoped to escape.
His eyes flickered with amusement, as if he knew what she was planning. The instant he moved to step around the bed, she bolted for the door, dashing in a wide circle around the bed so as to avoid her dark captor. Too soon something tripped her, and she didn’t realize it was Gavin’s booted foot until she fell into his arms. The bastard.
“Let me go!” She twisted in his grasp, her fright escalating by the second.
“Let you go? I don’t think so,” he said. “I’m enjoying the view too much.”
She stilled in his strong arms and glanced down. Shame heated her face. Her cleavage had popped out of the low-cut nightdress, and her nipples were on display to Gavin. Even worse, she was winded, and her large bare breasts heaved in time with her quick breaths. Mortified, she tried to cover herself, but Gavin pulled her arms behind her, preventing her from reclaiming her modesty.
More and more heat rose to her cheeks as he turned her around, leading her to the bed. He pushed her down on her back, still preventing her from covering herself. His gaze was hungry and primal, and she feared what would happen next.
He pressed his body down on her and shifted to straddle her waist, stretching her arms high above her head. “I already told you my brother wants to keep you.” His eyes roved over her, lingering on her exposed, heaving chest. “And,” he said with obvious appreciation, “I think I want to keep you, too.”