“Don’t worry, sweetheart. You’ll be the prettiest one of all.”
My stepfather’s voice rang out in the oversized dressing room. He didn’t care that I was right there beside him. As per usual, he ignored me and smiled broadly with eyes only for my mother as he kissed her, sliding his hands around her waist as he pulled her closer against him.
He didn’t even glance my way. I was the ever-invisible daughter. Sometimes, it was like I didn’t even exist at all.
I don’t know why I was expecting anything different. We had never had any kind of relationship at all. For the most part, he pretended I wasn’t there. Things weren’t much better with my adoptive mother, either. The only time she gave me literally any attention at all was when she felt threatened by me.
No matter what I did or said, she was utterly obsessed with comparing her beauty to mine.
I’d lived in her shadow my whole life. Madison White was a world-famous top model and actress who had been photographed in nearly every fashion magazine in print and on the web. She’d made the top list time and time again for her high cheekbones and perfectly plump lips, not to mention her olive-green eyes, radiant dewy skin, and her sculpted, toned physique. Her work in charity made her a reigning queen in the New York socialite scene too, which meant she was invited to the top events in the city.
But it didn’t end there. Some time ago, she’d gotten the idea in her head that a family would make her look even better to the press, which was where I came in.
My adoption years ago had solidified her selflessness in the face of the public, just like she thought it would, but I knew it was all a front to reaffirm her own vanity.
She didn’t love me. She never had.
Sometimes I wondered what my real mother was like, but she’d disappeared right after I was born and left me at an orphanage in the countryside of eastern Europe. I didn’t know if she had died or just hadn’t wanted me, but there were no records left for me to find her. I lived there from the time I was a baby until I was adopted when I was four years old, and I had no memory of her. There wasn’t enough information to even begin to find her. I didn’t have very many positive memories of the orphanage as a child, aside from rich donors coming to visit us on occasion. Our house mother always made apple strudel on those days.
Madison had been one of those wealthy people. She’d come in with a large donation, saying she wanted an older child, and after she’d given every child in the place a once-over, she eventually settled on me. I recall her kneeling down in front of me with her hand reaching out, gently brushing a lock of my dark chestnut hair off my forehead. At the time, her touch had felt nice. I’d welcomed it back then.
“Her eyes are the color of honey. They’re so bright against her pretty black hair,” she’d said.
Her gaze had searched my face, assessing me with shrewd calculation. It was only much later in life that I’d realized she’d been deciding if I was cute enough to stand by her side in pictures that would show how charitable she was for helping a poor orphan in need, not if I was a child she wanted to love, care for, and make an actual member of her family.
That understanding would come much later.
My stepfather’s loud voice jarred me out of my thoughts.
“They’ll all be looking at you tonight, Madison,” he proclaimed, his words echoing throughout the room with his biased confidence.
I sighed. Tonight was going to be like every other night, where I would trail behind them with a smile plastered on my face, presenting as the perfect daughter in the perfectly happy White family at yet another charity ball.
Inwardly, I scowled. I really wanted nothing more than to curl up with a book.
All three of us were dressed to the nines. A bright red Valentino gown hugged my stepmother’s every curve, highlighting the timelessly perfect shape of her body. Her makeup was impeccably done to hide even the slightest wrinkle that hadn’t been corrected yet by Botox or plastic surgery.
Her birthday had been only yesterday, but no one had uttered her age, not even once. It was practically forbidden, so much so that I think she denied it herself.
She’d turned fifty.
She had only gotten meaner and more bitter with every passing day. Her eyes slinked over me like a viper ready to strike, and I quickly dropped my gaze so as not to instigate her ire. But I wasn’t fast enough, and she lashed out at me anyway.
“You think you’re more beautiful than me, don’t you?” she accused, sneering at me. Her vitriol was always hard to bear, especially like this.
“I don’t think that, not at all,” I whispered.
Her twisted scowl told me that she didn’t believe a word that came out of my mouth. I stared back down at the floor, and soon after that, the loud clicking of her heels against the marble tiles indicated that she’d turned her attention away from me and left the room. Only then did I hazard a glance in her direction. She didn’t look back at me, not even for a second. With a deflated sigh, I gazed at my own reflection in the mirror. I did feel quite beautiful tonight, but I’d never made the mistake of telling anyone that, especially her.
I fingered the side of my own fancy gown. It was a pretty slate blue color, much more subdued than that scarlet satin of Madison’s dress. It was some lesser-known designer than I’d already forgotten the name of, but it made me feel pretty anyway.
It was okay to feel pretty every once in a while, right?
Feeling a little defeated, I slid my feet into a pair of black and blue kitten heels and walked out of the dressing room into the front foyer. I caught a glimpse of the two of them walking out the door and stayed back, letting them climb into limo first before I followed and sat down in the seat across from them. They popped a bottle of champagne as the vehicle started but didn’t offer me any, even though it was technically the night before my twenty-first birthday.
They said nothing on the drive to the charity ball, choosing instead to chat between themselves instead of interacting with me.
To be honest, a part of me both loved and loathed the silence.
Eventually, the limo pulled up to the red carpet rolled out in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a man in a suit opened the door. My stepfather climbed out and offered Madison a hand. As soon as she interlaced her fingers within his, the camera lights started flashing and people started screaming her name. Her face lit up in an instant. She was in her element. She loved this kind of attention more than anything in the world.
I waited until she was halfway down the red carpet, letting her soak up the spotlight. Eventually, I climbed out of the car and stepped into the light. I paused and took a deep breath, then continued onward, making sure I didn’t trip over my feet.
I didn’t belong here. I wanted nothing to do with the limelight. I’d much rather be camping in the woods, letting the quiet peace of nature surround me.
Tomorrow would make it seem like this had never happened. I’d already packed my car with supplies so that I could take off and celebrate on my own. I was going to drive up north to Adirondack Park and spend the day hiking and listening to my favorite music.
You only turn twenty-one once, after all.
Everything was all laid out. I had mapped out my route, planning to make a stop at a local liquor store to pick up a bottle of red wine to stuff in my pack along the way. Then, when the sun set, I’d have dinner under the stars with my first legal drink.
I’d been looking forward to the trip for weeks.
When I finally raised my head, knowing it was time to face the music, camera lights started flashing in my direction. Suddenly, it felt like there were a thousand of them all turned on me.
What the hell? They usually all focused on Madison, never me.
“Sophia! Miss Sophia White! Tell us how it feels to make Cosmo’s list of the most beautiful women in the world!” one reporter shrieked. A second followed up with something similar, and then the entire red carpet erupted in chaos.
What? I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. This had to be some kind of mistake, right?
One of the cameramen rushed forward, leaping over the ropes with his camera flashing, and I took a step back. Another followed and then another, until a group of them were racing towards me. Soon, they were surrounding me, leaving me nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. In their hurry to get the best photo op, a man’s elbow knocked me in the chin, and I staggered backwards, almost tripping over my feet until a pair of secure arms wrapped around me and lifted me clean off the ground. My panic welled up from the bottoms of my feet, constricting my chest and making it hard to breathe.
I turned my head to see a friendly-looking security guard offering me a sympathetic smile. I didn’t struggle as he carried me backwards, finally placing me down on my feet once he’d managed to get some distance between me and the paparazzi.
Quickly, a group of security guards moved between me and the photographers. They escorted me safely down the red carpet until I managed to get inside. I pressed my hand to my chest and attempted to calm my frantically beating heart. When I lifted my head, I saw my stepmother standing in the entryway, her accusing, scornful gaze locked on me.
I could see her hatred for me written all over her face. The intensity of it made me feel sick.
By the time I climbed into my own bed and finally closed my eyes that night, I was exhausted. I slept hard, but in the middle of the night, I woke up with a shriek, startled when a massive hand clamped over my mouth. My eyes popped open to see a man in a black ski mask crouched over me, his dark eyes full of vicious intent.
I screamed again, but the sound was muted by the cloth he had pressed over my mouth. No one was going to hear me, not like this. My room was in the wing opposite that of my adoptive parents so they could interact with me as little as possible. I’d always liked that, but right now I wished it had been different.
The staff had long gone home and would only return in the morning. Even the ones that lived on the property were in the servants’ quarters beneath the kitchens. They wouldn’t hear a peep either.
My hope of rescue withered away.
A flowery scent assaulted my senses, and I tried not to breathe it in. All my efforts were thwarted though when he punched me in the stomach hard enough to force the air right out of my lungs. I wheezed, trying to catch my breath.
The edges of my vision danced with blackness, and I kept trying to fight as slivers of my consciousness began to fade. Gradually, my muscles grew exceedingly heavy, and my kicking and struggling started to slow until I wasn’t moving much at all. Eventually, everything went dark.
I didn’t know how long I was out.
When I finally came to, I was sitting in a chair with my hands tied behind my back. The rough, scratchy fibers dug into my wrists, and I stilled, trying to take stock of myself. My head pounded and a wave of nausea rattled through me. It took everything in me not to throw up all over myself. Once the sick feeling eventually passed, I focused on taking several deep, calming breaths. The events of last night slowly came back to me, and a fresh wave of panic washed over me. I didn’t dare open my eyes yet, not wanting to give away the fact that I was conscious to whoever had taken me, especially if they were close.
Keeping still, I just listened.
A bird chirped overheard, and the sounds of the gentle breeze cutting through the boughs of the trees met my ears. In the distance, I could hear the constant flow of rushing water, likely indicative of a river or a waterfall not too far off. In my immediate vicinity, I listened as a faucet dripped once, then twice off to the right, and someone drummed their fingers on what I assumed was likely a wooden table in front of me. The plank floor beneath my feet creaked, but I didn’t move. Not yet.
My stomach ached where I’d been punched, but the rest of me felt intact. My face felt a little sore, likely from how hard the person had held that cloth over my nose and mouth, but it wasn’t that bad. I doubted I had any bruises.
Small victories, I supposed.
I shifted my leg the tiniest bit, finding them bound just like my wrists. Rough, scratchy twine dug into my ankles too, and I gathered that whoever had taken me wasn’t interested in letting me go. If I wanted my freedom, I was going to have to fight my way out.
Resigned, I opened my eyes.
There was a lone man sitting across from me in a wooden chair. He leaned back so that only the two back legs were touching the floor, his expression cocky.
He’d taken his mask off.
My stomach roiled with bile, knowing that if he was letting me see his face, he was probably going to kill me. His dark brown eyes slid over me, pausing on my breasts.
I swallowed hard, knowing that nothing more than a pair of panties and the thin fabric of my white cotton nightgown were covering my body. In this light, he could probably see the dusky rose of my areolas right through it.
From what I could tell, we were in a small cabin in the woods somewhere. Maybe he’d brought me north, but there was no telling exactly where we were from the limited information at my disposal. The faucet leaked and there was a small fridge, which told me there was at least some power connected to this place. Most of the furniture seemed to be hewn by hand. I guessed that maybe this was a hunter’s cabin of sorts, or maybe just a place meant for camping.
My gaze locked with the man sitting at the table, his piercing brown eyes scanning me with an intense scrutiny that sent a shiver down my spine. He exuded an air of deadly confidence, his presence commanding the room. Dressed in sleek, black attire that clung to his lean frame, he seemed like a shadow given form. His dark hair framed a face chiseled with sharp angles. A subtle smirk played on his lips. Every movement he made was deliberate and controlled, betraying the lethal precision of an assassin honed by years of training.
He wasn’t as big as I had thought he was last night, but he still had at least fifty pounds of muscle on me. One on one, I probably couldn’t beat him in a fight. I’d taken some self-defense classes in the past, but the maneuvers were foggy, and none of them involved being tied to a chair.
In silence, I shifted my wrists, testing the tightness of my bonds. There was a little give in the rope, maybe just enough to slide my slim wrists out if I worked it enough. I started slipping my arms back and forth, trying to loosen the rope while keeping the rest of my body fully still.
“I must admit, you’re the youngest one I’ve ever been contracted to take care of. How old are you anyway?” he questioned thoughtfully. His voice carried with it a bit of unexpected warmth, not nearly as sinister as I imagined it would be.
The moment the words left my mouth, something else hit me.
“Christ. Old enough to drink.”
“It’s my birthday, actually,” I murmured miserably.
He shook his head in disgust. “I was offered a shitload of money for you,” he muttered, sounding awfully unsure of himself.
“You’re a hitman, aren’t you?” I asked, my voice sullen.
He didn’t answer. Instead, he looked away, confirming my suspicions without saying anything at all. He reached inside his thick black coat and pulled out a gun. I stiffened, immediately trying to loosen the rope around my wrists, but he didn’t point it at me. He placed it on the table.
“Usually, my targets are men. Big time CEOs. Government figures. Jealous family members arguing over an inheritance which can be more easily solved with a bullet in between the eyes. Once, it was a woman, but she knew I was coming and took her own life before I could get to her. Never have I had to look a girl like you in the eyes. The money she offered would set me up for life, but I don’t know if it’s worth it,” he rambled, his indecision painted all over his face.
I didn’t really need to ask who. I knew who was responsible for this.
“Everything was set up for me on a silver platter. She told me all about your trip, made sure there were records to follow. You would disappear on your hike and never come back. She’d be free of you.”
I swallowed hard. I had thought my adoptive mother’s jealousy was mostly harmless, but I could see now that I’d been dead wrong.
My death would put her back in the spotlight, making her someone to be sought after, adored, and pitied. She’d put on a front to organize a massive search for me, and the press would eat it up. Search parties would commence, but they wouldn’t find me. Even if they found my body, she would still probably be invited to every talk show. She might even get a book deal.
I bit my lip and dropped my gaze to the floor. He moved and my eyes flicked up, watching him pick up the gun and then place it back down like it had scalded his fingertips.
“I don’t think I can do this,” he whispered.
I kept quiet, watching him closely. With a scowl, he pushed up off the table and started pacing the room. He’d left the gun on the table. The bonds around my wrists had loosened up quite a bit and I shifted them back and forth a little faster. Eventually, I was able to free one arm, but I stalled on the other.
I didn’t want the rope to fall to the floor and give away the fact that I was partially free, so I slowly slid it down my wrist until I could grasp it loosely in my hand.
Eventually, he stopped and stared at me. I stiffened, appraising him. He looked like he’d settled on a decision, and when he came striding towards me, I acted. I tipped the chair to the left, smashing on the ground as I curled forward and slipped the rope around my ankles off the legs of the chair. Free, I scurried back, and he stopped short.
“No. Wait. I wasn’t going to do anything,” he exclaimed, holding his hands up.
I pushed myself up off the ground to my feet. As soon as I was standing, I raised my arms defensively and glanced back at the gun on the table, trying to calculate which of us could reach it faster.
“Listen, if I can stage your death, you can disappear. I can’t imagine you’d want to go back to a woman that hired a hitman to off you,” he quickly explained.
He didn’t seem to be bluffing. There was honesty in his eyes.
“I’m listening,” I said quietly, but taking a small step towards the table anyway.
“Look, I’m going to reach in my pocket and pull out my phone. There aren’t any stipulations in the contract as to how it needs to be done, just that there’s photo evidence. We can make it look real, and then we can both go on our way.”
“So, she’d think I was dead, you’d get paid even though you didn’t kill me, and I could just go off and live my life. That’s what you’re offering,” I stated quietly.
“Yes,” he answered.
“How am I supposed to believe you?” I questioned warily.
“Go get the gun. It’s yours.”
“Yeah. Take it,” he replied.
“Open your coat,” I countered.
With a curt nod, he did as I asked. There was no indication of any other firearm, but he did have several knives holstered along his belt.
“Keep your hands in the air,” I demanded, and he obeyed without a word. Quickly, I stole over to the table and picked up the gun. I’d taken a lesson or two back in the day, so I slid the chamber back and confirmed that it was loaded. I ejected the magazine to find it full of bullets before I pressed it back into place.
“For the moment,” I replied. “So, if you want to stage it, what do you suggest?”
“Take the rope and wrap it around your throat tight. If you lie down on the floor face down, they won’t be able to tell that you’re not actually dead. I’ll take the picture from over here. I won’t move from this spot. I promise,” he implored, his voice sounding at least partially genuine.
Slowly, I did as he asked, keeping the gun close at hand.
“If I hear you move or anything, I’ll shoot you,” I growled, making a point to aim the gun straight at his chest. My finger clicked off the safety, letting him know that I knew my way around a firearm well enough.
“I have no doubt,” he smiled, obviously trying to break the tension. “I’m going to take my phone out of my pocket. You can keep the gun trained on me if you like.”
I watched as he pressed his fingers into his pocket. Just like he said he would, he pulled out a phone and held his other hand up in the air.
Slowly, I tightened the rope and lowered myself to the ground. Once in place, I lay down on my belly, but I kept the gun close to my chest and my eyes trained on him. Not moving a muscle, he waited for me as I arranged myself on the ground and made sure the rope was visible.
“That’s great. I’m taking the picture now,” he murmured, and I heard the sound of a shutter going off several times before all was silent.
“I got it. I’m going to go now. Good luck with everything,” he stated. Once he started to move, I swiftly aimed the gun at him again, but I didn’t need to.
He fled out the front door, leaving it wide open behind him. I didn’t move yet for fear of ambush from someone else, but no one came. A few minutes ticked by, and I heard the gentle rumble of a car engine starting before it drove off. All was quiet for a while, and I eventually moved towards the door, keeping my gun up in case anyone else appeared.
I peered out the door, seeing nothing but trees in front of the cabin. I slowly circled the small structure, looking for signs of life, but found nothing. I was out here alone.
I should be more upset. I should feel scared or angry or panicked, but I felt none of those things.
Instead, I felt relief. I was free for the first time in my life.
I settled into the cabin for a few days, eating some of the canned food that had been left in the small pantry. It was extraordinarily quiet out here, surrounded by the silence of the trees. From my knowledge of the landscape, I guessed that I was deep in the forest of upstate New York. I couldn’t pinpoint my exact location, but that didn’t much matter since I had no intentions of returning home. Soon enough though, food became scarce, and I decided that I needed to move on.
I had high hopes that I could find a small mountain town where I could bleach my hair, get a job, and start a new life out of the limelight.
I packed a bag and started out once the sun rose the next day. I had taken several things from the cabin, including a thick flannel shirt, a pair of pants, oversized socks, and boots. Everything was meant for someone much larger than me, so they fit big, but I didn’t have any other options.
Later that day, storm clouds began to gather overhead. Within an hour, it was drizzling and by mid-afternoon, it was pouring. My feet slid in the mud, and it wasn’t until I almost fell that I knew it was time to seek out shelter. Almost as if the heavens were confirming my decision, a bolt of lightning lit up the sky and a crack of thunder rumbled so loudly, I questioned if the Earth had split in two.
I held the flannel above my head and tried to look around for shelter. When I spotted a cave off to the right, I sprinted in that direction and prayed it wasn’t already inhabited by an animal, most notably a black bear. Grizzlies were highly unlikely in this particular area, but that didn’t mean the risk was zero. Hopefully there wouldn’t be any wolves, coyotes, or bobcats waiting out the storm in there either.
Another crack of thunder sounded, and I ran faster, my feet slipping a little in the mud, but I kept myself upright. Just after I raced inside, a bolt of lightning crashed into a tree nearby, causing a tremendous amount of electrical energy to discharge into the tree trunk. In an explosive release, a fiery wave of heat and light followed as the trunk splintered with a loud thunderclap.
I threw myself to the ground and covered my head as splinters flew every which way. Thankfully, the cave sheltered me from much of the fallout and after a few seconds, it started to quiet. I pushed myself to my feet and looked back at the wreckage.
At least I’d have firewood tonight.
Once I determined that the threat had passed, I began to gather the large branches just outside the perimeter of the cave before they could get too wet and piled them up safely inside. The rain came in waves, and when a lighter spell took hold, I went out and gathered enough wood to last through the night.
When I was finally done, I reached into my pack, digging out the flint I’d found in one of the drawers of the cabin. With deft hands, I guided the flint against the rough piece of steel, creating a spark that flew straight into the tinder. The spark danced among the kindling as a fire began to take hold. Slowly it grew stronger, licking up the broken branches, and I sighed happily, tucking the flint back into my pocket.
For a while, I relaxed by the fire. The rain hadn’t let up again, creating an impassable waterfall that cascaded off the rock at the entrance of the cave. The sky grew darker outside, and I settled in for the night. Once my clothing was dry, I peered into the back of the cave, unable to see past the encroaching shroud of darkness.
I realized I should probably make sure I was in this cave by myself before I went to sleep.
I put it off for a while longer until it was pitch black outside and my exhaustion was coming in waves. With a massive yawn, I lit the end of a long stick, carrying it with me like a torch. I wandered deeper into the cave, the fire casting light on the rocks as I moved. When I reached a fork in the road, I looked one direction and then the other, trying to decide which way to go. Eventually, I settled on going to the right first. If I found any other forks, I’d choose the right one, that way I wouldn’t get lost on my way back. The passage narrowed and then opened up far beyond what my little torch could illuminate, and when I looked around, I saw a glowing light in the distance.
I kept going, trying to figure out what I was seeing. I climbed up onto a ledge and approached the light, lost in confusion.
It wasn’t another way out like I’d expected.
It was as if I was looking into a mirror, but what I was seeing wasn’t a reflection. It was an image of a forest, but it was surrounded with a hazy greenish glow that was circling around it. It looked like a magic portal.
Magic wasn’t real, but I could think of no other explanation.
I stared at it, studying the massive wooden tree trunks and the green leafy boughs overhead. Not far in the distance was a flowing river, creating a picturesque haven of peace. Unable to stem my curiosity, I reached out. Hesitant, I paused before I made contact, but some strange pull of gravity made me feel like I needed to keep going.
So, I did.
As soon as my fingertip contacted the strange magic, my whole world collapsed and turned upside down. Wind ravaged all around me, dragging me through the portal and up into the air. Gusts picked up all around me like a whirling tornado, throwing me around like I was nothing more than a leaf caught in the breeze.
I tried to back away, but my feet no longer had purchase on the ground.
The pressure made my ears pop, and it suddenly became incredibly hard to breath. I wheezed and tried to gulp down a lungful of air as the wind rushed through my hair, and all at once, it became too much.
My eyes rolled back in my head and nausea roiled through the pit of my belly.
Then my whole world ceased to exist.
When I came to, I wasn’t in the cave.
Flat on my back, I opened my eyes to see an overwhelming tree canopy overhead. Every leaf was massive, large enough that if I’d curled one around my shoulders, I could have worn it like a cape. The tree trunks were wider than I’d ever imagined they could be. Nearby, the sound of the rushing river soothed me, and I groaned, wondering what the fuck had happened.
Had I had some king of mental break? Was I dreaming? Had I hit my head or something?
I pressed my fingers into the soft moss, noting that it was thick enough to create a comfortable, plush carpet beneath me. Honestly, it felt kind of nice.
My head ached and my stomach still felt like it was ready to heave its contents all over the forest at any given moment. Despite all of that, I pushed myself up to a seated position and tried to figure out what this was.
Had that been a portal? If so, where was I? Was this somewhere on Earth, like the Amazon Rainforest or something?
I should be committed.
There was nothing to signify a location. The trees were thick enough that I couldn’t see too far in the distance to find anything of significance to help me.
Needing to clear my head, I pushed myself to my feet and approached the river. Its crystal-clear waters meandered through the landscape, glistening under the gentle caress of the warm sunlight streaming down from above. The water gracefully flowed into a swimming hole, creating a serene oasis of tranquility. Dappled light danced over the rippling surface, the shimmering hues beautifully calm and peaceful. There were moss-covered stones all along the edge of the water, along with vibrant wildflowers gracing the riverbank. It was quite beautiful.
I knelt down and slid my fingers beneath the water’s surface, finding it cool and inviting. Songbirds chirped in the distance, and when I looked all around, there was no one to be seen.
I sat down on the bank for a while, knowing I should be afraid to be in some strange fantasy land, but unable to bring myself to be.
Instead, I had a weird feeling that I was finally home.
I enjoyed the warmth of the sunlight streaming down on my face for a while longer until I decided to go for a swim. The air was warm, and the cool water called to me. I stripped off my clothes down to my bra and panties, wavering for a moment as I decided whether to take them off or not.
There wasn’t anyone here. Fuck it.
I reached behind my back and swiftly unclasped my bra before I whisked my panties down my hips. I folded everything together and put it in a neat little pile. When I was finally ready, I dipped my toe into the water and hummed happily at the cool embrace. Slowly, I stepped in, lowering myself under the surface bit by bit. Eventually, it became too deep for my feet to brush the pebbled sand below, and I swam out, sighing softly as I flipped and drifted a bit on my back.
This was paradise.
I’d never seen such beauty before in my life.
Her long, dark mahogany hair framed her pale naked form like wildflowers swaying in the gentle breeze. Her dark eyelashes complimented honey-colored eyes that I’d only been able to catch glimpses of as she looked around the river and walked into the water. A rosy hue stained her impeccably high cheekbones, setting off her plump pink lips perfectly. My gaze drew over the flawless contours of her face, trying to cement it into memory before I had to run.
I couldn’t help but follow the long, lean lines of her body. She was floating on her back, her perky round breasts set off by very hard, pink nipples that begged for me to reach out and touch them. Her legs kicked in the water, splashing little water droplets that pebbled on her flesh like tiny sparkling diamonds under the sun. Her arms spread outwards as she sighed contentedly, painting an impeccable picture of beauty and grace.
I’d been hidden amongst the thick foliage, so she hadn’t seen me when she’d stripped off her clothes so she could enjoy the cool waters of the Silversong river. I didn’t dare get any closer.
If I did, I’d lose control.
I’d take from her what she wasn’t ready to give. Her scent was already calling to me. In fact, the aroma of jasmine, vanilla, and cherries was what brought me here in the first place, and now I couldn’t pull myself away.
I needed to keep a level head.
The sun, although bright overhead, was approaching the end of its downward trek in the sky. Night would soon fall, and with the darkness came dangerous creatures that would make a meal out of an innocent human without a thought.
It had been some time since I’d seen a human. I’d done my best to keep myself far away from the inhabitants of Terraheim for a long time.
They were safer that way.
I knew what they called me—the mad king, the cursed king, and (worst of all) the feral king.
The truth was that they were right. I was a monster.
The throne was my birthright as Dragonborne, but I’d long abandoned my seat. Centuries ago, I’d been betrayed by someone I loved. I’d given her my heart, and she’d thrown it right back in my face.
In exchange for more power than she could ever have imagined, I’d been cursed.
Any heightened emotion, such as anger or arousal, sent me into a feral state. Everyone near me was in unparalleled danger. In the past, I’d killed people that happened to be too close. I fought without recourse. I lashed out without thought. Even in my human form, I posed an incredible threat to every single creature in the realm. In my dragon form, the danger was without equal.
I lost complete and total control.
With a soft grunt, I turned my head. I didn’t want to think about the terrible things I’d done in the past. As punishment for my sins, I’d exiled myself to the western reaches of the realm where the forests were too thick. There weren’t humans for miles—that was, until this very moment.
Where had this woman come from? Didn’t she know the dangers of these woods? How had she gotten here without alerting the ferocious beasts that inhabited this forest? How was she still alive?
Questions whirled around in my head, but I knew I couldn’t find the answers to them. I couldn’t even approach her for fear that I’d hurt her, so instead I just chose to stay and watch over her in case something else came along.
Her scent assaulted my senses once again, and I couldn’t miss the innocence hidden amongst the intoxicating layers of it.
She was a virgin.
My heart pounded in my chest, the blood rushing through my skull in a whoosh. I took a step back, needing to distance myself, but feeling an extreme need to stay and protect her should she come to find herself in danger. Every muscle fiber in my body felt ready to burst, and sweat beaded at the edges of my brow. Heat burned through me as I tried to restrain myself. Leaning forward, I pressed my hand against a tree in order to keep myself steady.
My cock was rock hard. I wanted nothing more than to drag her wet, lithe body out of the water, pin her down on her back, and mount her. Even though I knew I shouldn’t, I yearned to sink myself into her and give her the rutting she deserved for having the audacity to swim in my forest naked.
I wanted to protect her, but the truth was that she was already in the worst danger imaginable.
There wasn’t anything more dangerous that inhabited this forest than me.