Excerpt: Reborn in Shadow – Chapter 1

Nothing like the smell of old books to send you to your happy place. Anna Duncan smiled looking around the most wonderful place in all the world—Blue Dragon Books. Which just happened to be her place of employment.

Occasional brownouts and dire economic woes placed eReaders firmly into the realm of luxury items as far as her budget was concerned. So she was thankful this musty, used bookstore stood sentinel over the street and surrounding shops. The old grandfather clock struck eight and Anna turned the Open sign to Closed.

reborn2SM

Chapter 1

Present Day
Friday, March 13th
Edinburgh, Scotland

 

Nothing like the smell of old books to send you to your happy place. Anna Duncan smiled looking around the most wonderful place in all the world—Blue Dragon Books. Which just happened to be her place of employment.

Occasional brownouts and dire economic woes placed eReaders firmly into the realm of luxury items as far as her budget was concerned. So she was thankful this musty, used bookstore stood sentinel over the street and surrounding shops. The old grandfather clock struck eight and Anna turned the Open sign to Closed.

“Cup of tea before you head out?” Gerard held out a steaming mug bearing the logo of the University of Edinburgh and motioned her over to the tattered brown sofa.

Groaning, she sank into the cushions. “You’re a godsend. I finished the inventory from the estate sale you visited last week. Yum. Chai, my fave.”

“Good, good. We’ll start going through the stacks in preparation for the spring sale tomorrow. Walk you home? It is Friday the thirteenth; no telling what might be lurking outside.”

Though she was twenty-two, her boss asked the same question every night. Which was silly, considering that one, he lived above the store so it was completely out of his way. Two, she was a grown woman and proficient at taking care of herself, had been for years. And three, what on earth could possibly happen?

“No, I’ll be fine. I like black cats and I’ll be sure to avoid walking under any ladders. Before I go home I want to stop by the old button factory. It’s cold tonight and there’s a hat and scarf abandoned in the lost and found. Been there a week, so now they’re mine.” She briefly closed her eyes, holding the mug with both hands, letting the warmth seep into her skin.

Gerard nodded. “Be careful. You think the best of everyone. Times getting harder brings out the worst in folks.”

He was such a worrier, which was surprising. Looking at him, you’d think he only cared for his music. He always wore a t-shirt from some group she’d never heard of and constantly hummed, working out lyrics during the day. The man had shaggy, shoulder-length brown hair, kind brown eyes and a perpetual stoned look on his face.

After Walking through the store to the tiny kitchen located in the rear of the shop, Anna washed and set the mugs in the cheery yellow dish drain to dry. She bundled up to face the frigid weather, then grabbed the items from lost and found, tucked them into her backpack and called out over her shoulder, “Hard times also bring out the best in people. See you tomorrow.”

Waving, she retrieved her bicycle from the storage room, wheeled it through the store and out into the night. The icy wind blew kisses in her face, but at least it wasn’t snowing. After pulling the scarf tight to cover her mouth and nose, she pedaled into the dark. Legs pumping, she turned off the busy main thoroughfare onto one of the less noisy and crowded back streets. This way she could avoid traffic. People didn’t always see you on a bike and she’d had a couple of close calls.

The wet cobblestone streets shimmered under the street lamps, casting the night into something out of a fairytale. All she needed was a wizard to appear in front of her or a warrior on horseback to come thundering down the street, sword raised to vanquish his enemies.

Passing a tube entrance on the corner, she thought of people going home from work, deep underground as she cycled above. It wasn’t cold enough to splurge and take the tube if it started storming, though if it did she’d give in and join the rest of the city in the underground tunnels. It was fun riding with everyone, wondering who they were, where they were going, and what they did for a living. She made up fantastical scenarios, and before she knew it had arrived at her destination. When the economy picked up a bit, she’d take the tube twice a month.

Happy at the thought, she hit the brakes and skidded a foot before stopping against a street lamp. A low-slung black sports car with a bumper sticker proclaiming “Shoot me again, you best pray I’m dead” roared by so close the ends of her scarf blew around her. As it passed, the light hit the window of the car, affording her a glimpse of a strong jaw and short, dark hair. The sticker made her grin. What kind of car was it? Talk about a perfect combination of beauty and power. Bet a machine like that set the guy back a chunk of change. Cars were terribly expensive with her meager budget, but on the other hand you didn’t have to worry about parking or petrol.

The bike was the best find ever. Walking home from a previous job, she had spied the bike poking out from a trash heap in front of a grand building. The front tire was missing, the seat cushion cracked, but she was certain it could be fixed. Excited at the thought of her own transport, she dragged it the three kilometers to her flat. One of the neighbors, Dave, was a mechanic. He took the bike and the next day brought it upstairs. With a new seat, front tire and basket, it almost looked new. Dave showed her how to maintain it and she was free to explore wherever her legs might take her.

That was six months ago. Since then she’d cycled all over Edinburgh and the countryside. At first she was sore, muscles she never knew she had protesting each and every step. Gerard laughed at her climbing the ladder at work. Told her she looked like an old woman. After a few weeks, her body grew used to the bike, and now she was grateful to whoever had thrown away what had become her prized possession.

On autopilot, daydreaming of tropical beaches and the warmth of the sun, Anna turned down a pitted roadway, climbed off to squeeze through a rusty gate, chained the bike to a fence and walked toward the factory.

Closed for years, it sat on the outskirts of the Leith Docks. Close enough to smell the water yet far enough away she couldn’t hear any of the noise. The factory bore the faded stenciling of Grimshaw Button Company on the side of the building. It must have been quite a sight back in the day. There were still various buttons and bits lying around inside and scattered across the faded brick floor, as if everyone left one day and never returned. Now the once-proud building provided shelter to the homeless and street kids.

On one of her exploring trips a few months ago, she’d found the place, ventured inside and was surprised to find a thriving community. In the time since, the numbers of people were fewer and fewer. People went out and didn’t return. Anna hoped they’d found a better place to live. Less than twenty souls remained in the building, mainly concentrated in the cavernous room at the rear of the first floor. One of the men told her the room was warmer than the others. The space contained castoff pieces of furniture salvaged from trash bins, creating a makeshift living and sleeping area. Someone had found various bits of fabric and hung the pieces from the exposed pipes above, creating makeshift bedrooms. The wildly differing colors and prints lent the room a festive air.

No one seemed to be around. Maybe they were outside making dinner or out scavenging.

Turning the corner, she pushed through the faded blue door into an entryway. There she exited the building through dingy glass doors now boarded up with plywood and spotted three men she recognized from her many visits. Dressed in rags and tattered blankets, they were cooking something in a pot over a fire in a metal barrel.

She sniffed. “What’s on the menu this evening?”

Greeting her warmly, one of the men, Frank, motioned her closer. “Potato soup, lassie. Care for a cup?”

“I appreciate the kind offer, but I’ve already eaten.” Hoping her stomach wouldn’t rumble and betray her, Anna was humbled by their generosity. These men had so little yet they offered to share their meager meal. She shrugged off the backpack and dug through the assorted contents, removing the hat and scarf. “No one claimed these from the lost and found at work. Know anybody who could use a hat and scarf?”

Frank took both. “Aye. I know a bloke.”

The men wouldn’t accept the items if she asked if they needed them. She’d learned to phrase the question so it sounded like they were helping others. Glad he’d be warm tonight, she bid them goodbye. Half walking, half skipping, she rounded the corner of the building, crashing into a man wrapped in a bright orange plaid blanket.

“Sorry, I didn’t see you.”

Dirty hands clutched at her arms. “Behind me. Run.”

Eyes widening, heart pounding out of her chest, she saw three men chasing the man she had bumped into. Knives brandished in front of them as they ran straight for her. Adrenaline speeding through her veins, Anna sprinted toward the gate.

Make it to the bike and get away. Eyes on her approaching freedom, she didn’t see the fourth man burst out from the doorway at the front of the weathered brick building until he was in front of her, cutting off the only path of escape.

“What have we here? A fine hen, ready to be plucked.”

Skidding on her heel, she turned only to find herself facing the other three men. Wearing the scarf and hat she’d given him, Frank and another man, Hugh, came to her aid. The others silently faded away, not wanting trouble or to get involved. Everything would be fine. This was nothing more than a misunderstanding or some kind of Friday the thirteenth prank. They didn’t want her. She hadn’t done anything.

Frank spoke. “Let the lady go and be off.”

Instead of answering, three of the men punched Frank and Hugh while the fourth man pinned her arms above her head, holding her tight against the wall of the building. The cold stone seeped through her coat, chilling her, turning her blood to an icy slush. A loud crack rent the air and Hugh fell to the ground.

“Don’t hurt them. They haven’t done anything wrong.” Why didn’t she have a stupid mobile like the rest of the planet?

A nasty sound broke free from the man holding her, his breath hot and fetid against her ear. She swallowed, breathing through her mouth.

Hugh lay on his side, unmoving. Frank was on the ground, curled up in a fetal position, using his hands to protect his head and face as the men viciously kicked him.

Squeezing her eyes shut tight, she sent up an invocation for someone, anyone, to aid them.

Hearing an ugly grunt, she cracked one eye open. Frank and Hugh lay on the ground, still and unmoving. Anna’s teeth chattered. “D…di…did you kill them?”

“Don’t know, don’t care.” The man kicked at Frank, who moaned in response. “Unconscious. Not dead. Though you’ll wish you were dead by the time we’re done with you. In the wrong place at the wrong time, hen.”

The man was missing a few yellow teeth from the top and one on the bottom. Unshaven, he had a wild look in his eye. “Unhinged” was the word that sprang to mind. Where were the authorities when you needed them? Probably somewhere warm and dry.

The smelly man ripped the backpack from her shoulder and threw it to his friend, who turned the precious bag upside down, spilling the contents to the sodden ground. Spying her wallet, he tore through the cheery pink fabric.

“A lousy five quid? Barely enough for two pints. Where’s the rest, missy?”

“That’s it. I don’t get paid for another week. I need the money for groceries. Let me go. I won’t go to the authorities.” She would—as soon as they let her go, she was pedaling to the closest police station and getting help for Hugh and Frank.

Ugly laughter rippled through the men. Shooting a glance at her would-be rescuers, she willed them to get up. For someone to bring help. Anyone. The punch to her stomach by the one who called her “hen” sent a wave of pain rolling over her, causing her knees to buckle. Anna gulped, swallowing bile. Saliva pooled in the back of her throat.

The man yanked her upright. “You’re lying. Where’s the rest of the money?”

Doubling over against the thick arms holding her, she convulsively swallowed, desperately hoping she wouldn’t throw up. Fighting for breath like a fish flopping on the sand seeking water. The slap came out of nowhere. Face stinging, she felt something wet drip down her cheek to the corner of her lip. She stuck her tongue out. The liquid tasted salty. Tears.

The words wouldn’t come. “I…don’t.”

“Some birds hide valuables in their bra, check.” Two of the men pulled at her clothing, undressing her. After carelessly tossing her coat to the mud, one of the men yanked the sweater over her head and ripped the dingy turtleneck down the front. Cold air washed over her, pebbling her skin. Callused hands eagerly reached in her bra, pinching her breasts, leaving dirty fingerprints on the pale lavender lace. She opened her mouth to scream, but thick, callused hands covered her mouth. Stinky breath leaned close. “Bite me and I’ll slit you from ear to ear.”

This couldn’t be happening. The entire scene was surreal, a movie playing out before her eyes. They would let her go now that they knew she didn’t have anything to offer.

“No money. Well, hen, looks like you’ll pay with your skin today. Who wants the first go, boys?”

The sunshine left her soul, leaching out into the muddy ground as the import of what they said sank in.

She struggled with all her might, but it was useless. They were too strong. She couldn’t save herself. Finding her courage, she bit down on the hand covering her mouth, tasting motor oil. The man let go with a snarl and she let loose a bone-chilling scream, spitting out blood. Stomach roiling, she heaved. The copper taste of the man’s blood in her mouth mixed with the taste of his skin made her gag. She had to run. Before he cut her.

But…she couldn’t leave Frank and Hugh to die.

A thud and the rush of the wind howling around the building drew her attention to the left. One of her attackers was lying on the ground, eyes open, staring up at the night sky. The whirlwind moved around her, whispering in her ear as the hair on the back of her neck stood up.

The second man seemed to be embracing the wind, but something odd was happening to him. Her mind couldn’t process what she was seeing. It was too hard to put into words. Like the man withered away into a shell of himself and the leftover bit drifted to the ground like an old, dried leaf. The clothing vanished.

The man who had threatened to cut her drew his knife and stabbed wildly at the windstorm to no avail. Detached, she watched the third man fly up into the air as lightning struck him. The smell of charred flesh made her stomach heave again. Nothing came out as she doubled over, retching into a puddle.

“Here. Take her. Leave me be,” her final attacker screamed at the wind, and pushed her away. Razor-sharp pain sliced through her bare stomach. She looked down at pale winter skin; a thin ribbon of red appeared, the crimson stark against her white flesh. As she blinked, the ribbon turned into a river. And blood…her blood spilled down her stomach and thighs, to pool on the ground and mix with the mud.

Anna screamed. Screamed until there was nothing left. She opened her mouth to call for help, but not a single word escaped. Her mouth opened and closed, the words silenced in her terror. Sinking to her knees and collapsing on the ground, a snapping sound registered in her brain and she opened her eyes. The man who had cut her was bent backwards into a parody of an embrace before he too sank in on himself and turned into some kind of deflated, stretched-out balloon. Part of her mind, detached from reality, wondered what had happened to his clothes. The smart part of her brain shut down. Curling into a fetal position, she protected her stomach, desperately trying to stanch the red river with her hands.

Reaching out a shaking bloody hand, she managed one word… “Please.”

There was a presence within the swirling maelstrom. It was her last thought before she gladly succumbed to the welcoming blackness.

* * *

You can find the book at all eBook retailers and a paperback version is available at Amazon.

Available at: Amazon  |  Amazon UK  |  iBooks/Apple  |  Barnes & Noble  |  Kobo  | Smashwords  |  Google Play  |  All Romance eBooks

There are five books total in this series, with the final chapter coming in June. Embraced by Shadow, Monroe’s story.

I appreciate each and every fan. Big mega thank you for supporting and taking a chance on me. I love hearing from you!

hugs,

Cynthia

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