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Authors: Mara Black

Pieces of Autumn

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Contents

Title Page

Author's Note

Chapter One - Stoker

Chapter Two - Picture Day

Chapter Three - Tate

Chapter Four - Open Doors

Chapter Five - Tate's Rules

Chapter Six - Presumed Dead

Chapter Seven - Sorry

Chapter Eight - The Syndicate

Chapter Nine - The Basement

Chapter Ten - The Broken Room

Chapter Eleven - Fever

Chapter Twelve - The Circle Game

Chapter Thirteen - Awake

Chapter Fourteen - Waiting for a Train

Chapter Fifteen - Broken Things

Chapter Sixteen - Not Like This

Chapter Seventeen - Trust

Chapter Eighteen - Flowers

Chapter Nineteen - The Choice

Chapter Twenty - Healing

Chapter Twenty-One - A Good Listener

Chapter Twenty-Two - Wild Horses

Chapter Twenty-Three - Scars

Chapter Twenty-Four - Normal

Chapter Twenty-Five - The Viper's Tale

Chapter Twenty-Six - The New Rule

Chapter Twenty-Seven - The Plan

Chapter Twenty-Eight - The Sacred Law of Hospitality

Chapter Twenty-Nine - Gods and Monsters

Chapter Thirty - A New World

Chapter Thirty-One - The Knight at the Crossroads

Endnote

Appendices

PIECES OF AUTUMN

by Mara Black

Copyright © 2014 Mara Black

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

This book is intended for adult audiences only. All characters are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. All characters involved in sexual activity are over the age of eighteen.
 

The cover art for this book makes use of licensed stock photography. All photography is for illustrative purposes only and all persons depicted are models.

A Note to Readers:

This is a novel about some very, very flawed people.

They will make bad decisions. They will hurt each other. They might do things that will cause you to wish you could jump into the book and scream at them.
 

Some of the scenes might upset you. Some of them might piss you off. If you're looking for a lighthearted love story where the good guys wear white and the bad guys wear black, and morality is simple, and people never fuck up so badly they think there's no going back -
 

Look elsewhere, my friend.

But if you're captivated by love stories that begin in the dark - if you enjoy your pleasure laced with a little pain - if you think people deserve second chances -
 

Welcome to my world.

- Mara

CHAPTER ONE

Stoker

This isn't who I am.

This isn't me.

This is not happening.

This is not my life.

His hand closed around my wrist. Cold and unyielding, like steel. My breath hitched in my throat and I scrambled backwards instinctively, knowing it wouldn't help, but unable to stop.

This is not my life.

How did I get here?

I wish I could tell you that I was stolen. Kidnapped off the street in some third-world country, sold against my will, while a desperate family back home waited and prayed and talked about me on the news.

I wish I could tell you that, because then you might understand.

By the time I lost all hope, there weren't many people left to tell our stories. There was next to no sympathy, no understanding. We walked in with our eyes wide open.

Surely, we deserved whatever happened to us.

It would be useless to try and explain the pretty lies, the way they tried so hard to convince us everything was going to be all right. How little they had to convince us, sometimes - how our eyes were hollow with fear, like cornered animals, and sometimes the meal they would give us on that glossy boardroom table was the first time we'd eaten in days.
 

They spread the word in the right circles. They made sure everyone who was desperate knew they existed.
 

They spread rumors.
Somewhere in Paris, there is a beautiful girl who lives happily as a rich man's concubine. In Kyoto there is another, with bright blue eyes. She is learning to play the clarinet. One even lives in your city. You may have passed her on the street, and you wouldn't even know it.

They are so happy and content, these girls. So well-fed and their needs are taken care of. Don't you want to be like them?

Everyone knew someone who'd gone to them. Everyone knew someone who'd disappeared, whisked off the streets and never heard from again.

Everyone wanted to believe that she was the girl in Paris or Kyoto or right down the street, but they knew she wasn't.

But sometimes things got very, very bad, and they let themselves believe.

Young men walked through the streets sometimes, handing out cards to any women who had that particular look about them. Like they were on the edge of pure desperation.

Like they'd do anything.

The card was thick, off-white paper. It was finely printed, embossed, the edges so sharp they could make you bleed.

On the front, there was just one word.

STOKER

I carried that card with me for a whole winter.
 

My friend Nikki had already gone. We fought over it, tears streaming, shouting at each other in the street until a police car pulled up with its lights flashing. When Nikki told them where she was going, they offered her a ride.

That was the last time I saw her.

When we had each other, at least I had someone to talk to. No matter how bad things got, we could huddle for warmth. The sound of her breathing lulled me back to sleep when I woke up from my strange nightmares, the ones that had haunted me for so long I couldn't remember when they started.

It might have been while I was still living in my parent's house. Before everything went to hell. Before the man who called himself Birdy came and gave me a choice.

Pick one, sweetheart.

Pick one, or I'll have to pick both.

By all rights, my nightmares should have been about that. About Birdy. About his impossible choice, the horrible gnawing guilt that I lived with every day. The doubts. The wondering,
what if
.

But instead, I had nightmares about a different man.

I never saw his face. He wore sleek suits and kept himself shrouded in the shadows, and my nightmares always had plenty of corners where the light just couldn't reach. I was frozen, immobile, staring at him. Wondering. Watching him pace the room like a wild animal, expecting any moment that he would pounce on me.

And do what? I didn't know.

That was the worst part.

I'd wake up chilled, with his voice, smooth and cold as marble, echoing in my ears.

You belong to me now.

Now that I was alone, he visited me every night. I'd wake up panting, my heart racing, a strange buzzing in my body that wouldn't go away no matter how much I squeezed my eyes shut to ignore it.

My life with Nikki was hard, but we made it somehow. Without her, watching my back as I watched hers, without another human body to cling to on the coldest nights - it was easy to forget I even
was
human.
 

And that was the worst part.

I had nothing left. I was hunted. I was hungry most of the time, dirty, and always either too cold or too hot. But the worst part was that I didn't feel like a
person
anymore. How could I be? No one would let a
person
live like this.

And then I heard the whispers.

Birdy was getting closer. He had my last known whereabouts, a shantytown I'd been stupid enough to settle down in for a while. I never used my real name, and I hardly looked the same as I had five years ago. But now, his goons actually knew where to look. They knew who to ask.

I was hunted.

I was less than human, and so I found myself standing outside the empty warehouse in the center of town, surrounded by an eerie quiet.

There were no doors I could open. I climbed up on crates to peer in through the dirty windows, but the place looked abandoned. The next time I turned around, there was a sleek black car idling behind me. Silent.

The driver's side window rolled down.

"Stoker?" the man said.
 

I clutched the card in my hand.

"Yes," I said.

He gave a short nod of acknowledgement. "Get in."

I climbed into the backseat.

"You've made a good decision," the man said, as he pealed out onto the main road. "This is the beginning of a new life for you."

I almost sprained my neck, trying to look up at the place. It was several stories high, all glass and polished steel, with a huge archway and a bank of revolving doors that led into an ornate lobby. It might have been a luxury hotel.

It might have been. But it wasn't.

My driver took me up the elevator, which travelled so fast it made my empty stomach lurch, and led me into a room. It was a clean, well-appointed little bedroom. Not quite as luxurious as the exterior would have led me to believe, but I couldn't remember the last time I even had a real bed.

The driver locked the door behind him, and sat down in a chair in the corner.

"Take a shower," he said. "Clean yourself up. When you're done, put on the gown in the bathroom and come back here. I'll show you to your dinner meeting."

Dinner
. My stomach lurched, but for a different reason this time.
 

I showered as quickly as I could, mindful of the meal that was waiting for me, but also determined to get weeks' worth of grime off my skin and out of my hair. While I dried myself with the fluffiest towel I'd ever touched, I eyed my new outfit, hanging in the corner.

"Gown" was a generous term. It was more of a shift, or some kind of modified sheet, with a tie to go around the waist. But my crusty old clothes were unthinkable now. And anyway, he'd told me to wear this. I might as well start my tenure at Stoker off on the right foot.

I slipped the gown over my head, tying the sash as tightly as I could. It was too big for me, and dragged on the ground, but it was something.

The driver's head jerked up when I walked out into the room. He stood and stepped over to me, one, two, three long strides, until he was so close that my pulse started to quicken. Was it really going to start this soon? I wasn't stupid - I knew I'd be selling my body to these men, whoever they were. But now? Already?

No. He wasn't making a move to touch me. He was just...examining me, I realized. He walked around me in a circle, his eyes raking over me.

"Lift your dress," he said. "Up to your waist."

My face grew hot. There wasn't any underwear waiting for me in the bathroom, and he must have known that. Swallowing against a rising lump in my throat, I did as he asked.

He knelt down in front of me, his face as cool and dispassionate as if he were actually a doctor in an exam room. "Spread your legs."

I did.

"Hold yourself open."

Quivering, I lowered my fingers and spread my cunt lips apart. I didn't know what else to do.

"Good," he said, standing abruptly, and dusting his hands off, for some reason. My eyes went immediately to his lap, as if I expected to see some kind of physical reaction to compensate for his mental detachment. But he wasn't aroused by me. Of course he wasn't. How stupid was I, to just assume that a man who probably evaluated homeless pussy for a living would be interested in
me
?

"Tell me about your sexual history," he said, crossing his arms.
 

I just shook my head.

"None?" he said, looking mildly incredulous. "You're a virgin, then."

I nodded.

"Is your hymen intact?"

I cleared my throat. "I think...I think so."

"That's very good," he said, his voice taking on a soothing tone for the first time since we'd met. "There's not much use being a virgin if we can't advertise you as one."

My blood ran cold, and I could feel myself go white as a sheet.
 

He reached into his pocket for something - a tailor's tape. Letting it unfurl, he stepped close again, wrapping it around my breasts and muttering a number to himself. After measuring my waist and my hips, he shoved the tape back in his pocket and withdrew a small notebook, where he scrawled my measurements.

"Come," he said, snapping his fingers. "It's time for dinner. The board will be very pleased to meet you."

I followed him, barefoot, down the long hallways, under the warm, welcoming glow of the lights that did nothing to calm my nerves.
If I just turn and run, will they catch me?

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