Authors: Maria Elizabeth Romana
“Let her go!” Grace was within twenty yards of them now.
Aiden turned in the direction of the cars parked along the cross-street and waved his hand, motioning in Grace’s direction. Immediately, the doors on a black SUV opened and two large men stepped out, one black, one white. Grace froze in her tracks momentarily, but then continued moving toward Ellie and Aiden, placing herself between them and the big men, who were now heading her way.
Ellie again tried to pull away from Aiden. “What’s going on? Why are you doing this?”
Aiden released her neck, but only to reposition himself, so her back was pinned to his front, and his arm was wrapped around her chest. “Shhhh, honey, take it easy. No one’s gonna hurt you.” He pressed his free hand over her mouth and nose so she couldn’t speak, scream, or even breathe very well. She struggled to free herself from his grasp, but it wasn’t much of a fight. Her thoughts felt strangely disconnected, and her legs had turned to gelatin.
The two men from the SUV were arguing with Aunt Grace now, saying something about why didn’t she just leave, and an easy way or a hard way, and, oh no, no, NO! One of the men struck Grace, knocking her down, and then the other one was standing over her as she tried to get up, and…what was that? What was he holding? A knife! Dear God, what in hell—
Ellie’s brain had turned to mush. Her eyelids were getting so heavy. Her knees finally gave way, and she fell against Aiden’s arm, unable to support herself. As her eyes fluttered open and closed, yet another stranger arrived on the scene. Tall, menacing, and statuesque, this one was dressed all in black, maybe leather, and was running straight toward Grace and the big, scary knife guy.
As darkness engulfed Ellie’s brain, a piercing scream cut through the air, and the glint of a shiny knife blade flashed before her eyes.
# # #
Ellie was hearing the scream, again and again. She couldn’t seem to shake it. And each time she heard it, she saw the backside of that long, muscled body, covered in smooth black leather. And the shiny glint of a knife, as it sailed through the air.
But she couldn’t take it anymore. This time she fought harder, pushing up through the pool of chocolate pudding that was holding her back. She forced her head to clear and her eyes to open. Aha. Finally, she had done it. Her body wasn’t ready to cooperate yet, but she managed to keep her eyelids raised long enough to survey the space around her.
She wasn’t in the back of the black SUV, as she’d half-expected she might be, and she wasn’t in anybody’s basement, back shed, or chained up in a secret room, hidden behind a two-way mirror. But most importantly, she wasn’t lying dead in a heap along the edge of the Chattahoochie…like maybe Aunt Grace was.
Nope, if this place was a prison, it was a really nice one. The room had two large beds, covered with designer linens and heaps of pillows. The headboards and bedside table looked like polished cherry, and the draperies were heavy, floor-to-ceiling, and several layers thick, blocking out all but the tiniest slivers of sunlight near the ten-foot ceiling.
Slowly, Ellie pushed herself up off the pillows. Her veins were filled with lead, and her head was stuffed with cotton, but otherwise, no aches, no pains, no apparent bruises or cuts. She threw her legs over the side of the bed, and then stood, holding on to the headboard, just in case. Her jeans and her favorite pink shirt had been replaced by a long cotton nightgown, white with tiny roses. Okay, maybe not something she would have picked out for herself, but at least she wasn’t naked. So what the heck was going on? She remembered Aiden saying, “No one’s gonna hurt you.” That appeared to be the case, but that didn’t mean she wanted to hang around.
She knew she needed to make a plan, scope out her surroundings and find a way out. There was no phone in the room, including her own. There were several doors to choose from; one that looked like a closet, one that led to a bath, and a third that had some light coming from underneath, presumably where Aiden or those other creeps were. She made her way to the window and pulled back the curtains just enough to see outside. The sunlight was blinding; how long had she slept? When her eyes finally adjusted, she could see that she was eight or ten stories up in a building surrounded only by rolling hills and trees, with maybe some larger mountains in the distance. She let the curtains fall back into place. Looked like there was only one viable exit.
She stepped up to the door and put her ear against it. There were no voices coming from the other side—no TV, no radio, no conversation, just an occasional low rumble. Maybe they were gone. Maybe they’d left her alone. Maybe this moment, right now, would be her only chance to get away. She tightened her hand around the doorknob and turned it ever so slowly, releasing the latch without a sound. She opened it just a crack and peered through.
Huh. Whoever had done this crazy thing wasn’t as sharp as she might have guessed. On the other side of the door was a beautiful parlor with high-end furnishings and ornate decorative items—paintings, candlesticks, vases, and oh yeah, a hearty basket of fruits and nuts and chocolates on the coffee table in the center of the room. Not that any of that held her attention. What caught her eye was the sleeping body of the black-leather-clad person from the night before on one of the couches. In her bleary and frightened state, Ellie had assumed that person was a man; now, she could see how wrong she’d been. Sprawled carelessly over the seat, back, and arms of an aristocratic sofa was a tall, muscular, but shapely woman, still fully dressed in her skin-tight black leather ensemble, complete with high-heeled boots. Her skin was a few shades darker than Ellie’s, and her lips, ruby red. A mass of wavy black hair tumbled over the side of the couch, reaching almost to the floor. If Ellie didn’t know better, she’d swear she had stumbled into the Catwoman’s lair.
Question was—what would this seemingly peaceful feline do if she caught Ellie trying to sneak past her? Ellie jumped as Catwoman mumbled something in her sleep, adjusted her position, and resumed lightly snoring.
Ellie exhaled softly and tried to calm herself. She needed to focus if she was to get out of here in one piece. There were multiple doors to choose from in the second room, as well. One, directly across from her, was closed up tight and looked like it led into a second bedroom, and another, with multiple locks in place, appeared to be the way out. If she was quiet enough, she was sure she could make her way to that door, but would she wake up Sleeping Beauty managing all those locks?
It was now or never. Ellie opened the bedroom door wider and crept through. The sleeping woman didn’t stir. Ellie tiptoed across the room, trying not to breathe. One-quarter of the distance covered. One-half. Three-quarters, and her heart was pounding.
The sound of the other bedroom door opening sent her racing toward her goal. With both hands she clawed at the various locks and latches. How long did she have before some big giant person grabbed her from behind?
“Mouse, wait! Don’t go!”
Ellie froze in place.
“Mouse, I mean, Elodie…Ellie? It’s okay, don’t run.”
Slowly, she let her hands off the locks and turned. It wasn’t so much the sound of his voice that stopped her, but the name. Mouse. No one had called her Mouse since…well, longer ago than she could remember. It was a nickname known only to her family—Mom, Dad, Aunt Grace, and…“Uncle Joe?”
A soft smile spread across the man’s face. “You
remember. I wasn’t sure you would.”
Yes, yes, it was him. Older now, a little tired perhaps, and with a sprinkle of gray around the temples, but yeah, it was Joe. She wrinkled up her forehead, tearing at the layers wrapped around those memories. Her dear Uncle Joe. He wasn’t really her uncle, of course. Lucy and Grace had only one brother, and it wasn’t Joe, and Grace had never married, but when Ellie was a small child, Uncle Joe was as much a part of their family as anyone. He had disappeared from her life, though, when Ellie was only five or six. A satisfactory explanation had never been offered, only a promise of such, “When you’re old enough to understand.” A day which had never come.
Ellie dared take a few steps in his direction. “Joe, I-I don’t…why am I here? Why are
here? And what happened last night?”
He turned for a moment to pull the bedroom door quietly closed behind him, then came toward her. When he was close enough to touch her, he raised a hand hesitantly, as though permission was required. Ellie threw herself against him and wallowed in the embrace. He kissed her head and ran his hand over her hair, whispering into it, “Mousy Mouse, I missed you so much.”
She giggled then and pulled away. “Okay, I don’t know what’s going on here, but no one calls me Mouse anymore. It’s Elodie, Ellie, or El, for the really lazy ones.”
He sniffled, knocking away a tear. “Fair enough. Ellie it is. Now c’mon, I’ll fill you in.” He held out a hand to lead her towards the other couch in the room, the one that did not have a sleeping woman on it.
But Ellie didn’t move. “Wait, Uncle Joe, do you know anything about my Aunt Grace? Do you remember her? Mom’s sister? She was hurt. They—”
Joe held up a hand and laughed. “Yes, Ellie, I remember her. I’m not
old. And she’s fine, sleeping. I just checked on her.” He motioned back behind him, in the direction of the second bedroom. “She’s a little banged up, but Angel got them before they got her.” He nodded in the direction of the biker chick.
“Angel?” Ellie guessed. “That’s ironic.”
Joe grinned as they sat down. “Angelica Andrea Sofia Espinoza.” He thought a moment, then continued, “I think I got that right. You can ask her later. She’s Cuban, French, Jamaican, and maybe a few other things. I think her mother was trying to honor a whole lot of different relatives at once.”
With that, the long-legged woman seemed to rally. She opened her eyes, stretched, and shifted to a sitting position. She grabbed a handful of nuts from the assortment on the table between them and tossed it in her mouth. Then she grinned and said, “¡Hola, chiquita!”
Ellie had a couple years of Spanish under her belt, so she understood the greeting; it was more the accent that perplexed her. It was not like anything she’d ever heard before. Of course, what kind of accent would one expect from a Cuban-French-Jamaican-American Catwoman? “Er, um, hola,” she answered with a shrug.
Angel laughed openly at Ellie’s obvious confusion, then stood up, looking around. “Joe, we got anything to drink around here? And can we get some real food? I’m starving.”
He waved in the direction of a mini-fridge. “Sure, honey. There’s OJ in the fridge, and you can call room service. Get whatever you want.”
Angel was already flipping through a glossy folder with pictures of food on it.
“So…we’re in a hotel?” Ellie looked at Joe.
He focused on her again, while Angel rattled off her wish list into a house phone. “Yes, sorry, Ellie. We’re at the HearthStone Resort on Lake Chatterly.” When she didn’t respond, he added, “It’s near the Tennessee-Georgia border.”
“Oh. Well, how’d we get here? Did you drive us?”
“Really? Cool.” Then she wrinkled up her forehead. “Why don’t I remember it?”
Joe made a sour face and shook his head. “We’ll get to that, but are you all right now? Any dizziness, nausea?”
Ellie shook her head impatiently. “No, no, I’m fine, but who—I mean, why…I don’t understand…”
Joe opened his mouth to answer, but stopped as they both heard the door to the second bedroom open again. Ellie looked up to see Aunt Grace coming through the door. She was also wearing a long frilly nightgown, but the look was counterbalanced by a nasty bruise on her cheek and the way she was holding the door frame for support.
Despite the frailty in her physical appearance, Grace’s voice was as commanding as ever, “Joe, stop it right now. Don’t say another word!”
# # #
Grace bit her tongue and stopped herself. She knew Joe was just doing his
. He was a Healer and the leader of his community, so it was natural for him to try to make everyone feel calm and reassured, and to try to give them the information they needed to understand a situation, but this was neither the time nor the place. Now was a time for Grace’s thing; maybe she wasn’t one of The Gifted Ones, but she knew how to whip a ship into shape. She adjusted her tone, “I’m sorry, Joe, but we don’t have time for all that right now. If Ellie’s up to it, we need to get out of here.”
Ellie jumped up and hurried over to her. “Me? I’m fine. What about you, Aunt Grace? You look…” Her voice trailed off as she searched Grace’s face with concern.
Grace reached out and laid a hand on Ellie’s cheek. “I’m all right, sweetheart.” Then she grinned. “You should see the other guy.” Ellie’s face relaxed, and Grace assured her, “We’ll talk all about it later, okay?” Ellie seemed reluctant, but didn’t say anything. She knew better than to argue when Grace had made up her mind about something.
Grace shifted her attention back to Joe. “Have you filed a flight plan yet?”
“No, I was just going to—”
There was a knock on the door, and then a voice called through it, “Room service.”
Grace immediately tensed as Joe moved to the door, holding up a hand towards the rest of them. As he peered through the peephole, Angel assumed a defensive stance against the wall next to the door. Her hand was on her hip, no doubt ready to pull a weapon, if it was needed.