Excerpt Taken by Skye Warren
#1 (Diamond in the Rough)
“What’s with the name?”
There’s a weighted pause. “It’s just a name.”
“Is it your real name? Or your pen name?”
“It’s my real name.”
“There’s more to this story.”
“What does it matter? I’m trapped by a man you won’t even tell me about.” Her frustration zips through the air like electricity, lighting me up from the inside out. I don’t want to be too weak for this, too weak to protect her, but it was not a goddamn game—not really.
“I’ll tell you how I ended up in here. You tell me about your name. Fair?”
A pause. “Fair.”
I lean my head back until it hits a shallow puddle. Christ. “It’s my job to stop this operation. It’s also my job to steal from it. So I did my job.”
“What kind of boss asks you to do that?”
The US government. “Not a very ethical one. So the other guys jump me. Five on one makes for some ugly bruises. I ended up in here, and shortly after that, you came in.”
That isn’t quite the whole story. Adam left me here with those bastards. One of them in particular, Peter, has a really nasty streak. I have the cigar burns and whip marks to prove it. Between the beatings, the torture, and the starvation, I’m weak as a kitten.
The truly interesting part, though, is that Adam was only gone for a full day. Around twenty-four hours. Barely enough time to fly to the States and then back. He probably didn’t even leave the airport there. Why? He’s so mercurial that it could be anything. Maybe he fancied a fuck with a flight attendant. Or maybe he had a hankering for plane food. Either way, he came back with this woman. Holland, she said her name was. Holland Frank.
“Fine,” she says on a long sigh. “Holland is my real name, but I only use it for legal documents. And for my books. It’s an awkward name that everyone asks me about.”
“Your parents like tulips?”
“Or was it some kind of commentary about tilting at windmills.”
“I think then my name would have been Spain.”
“And why Holland? I think Netherlands has more of a ring to it.”
“Are you done yet?”
“This is my only entertainment. I could literally go all night.”
“Since you insist on knowing, and you did hold up your end up the bargain, I’ll tell you. My parents named me Holland because that’s where I was conceived.”
“And your sister?”
“Wow. That’s kind of sweet. Until you think about it.”
“Exactly. It is kind of sweet until you realize it’s about where your parents had sex.”
“And then you just walk around, like a sex souvenir.”
“Aren’t all kids sex souvenirs really?”
“Yeah, but they aren’t all labeled with the city’s name.”
“So that’s why I go by Holly.”
“And your pen name?”
“They wanted me to use a male pen name. Or something ambiguous like H.D. Frank. Male pen names tend to sell better, for the same exact book.”
“So you went with Holland.”
“It’s not really a girl’s name. Imagine if I’d been conceived in Antarctica.”
“They wouldn’t have done that to you. Would they?”
“They love me, but they are really into the meaning of things.”
“I’m sure they would be fair game.” She doesn’t sound mad about it, though. She sounds wistful, as if she loves her family. As if she misses them. That’s one upside to having a bastard of a father. I could be tortured for years and never miss him for a second.
“My father was a cruel bastard, and even he wouldn’t name me Madagascar.” Not that he’d actually been to Madagascar or anywhere interesting. He would have had to call me Podunk, along with both my brothers, because that’s where we were conceived.
Her attention turns softer, more interested. “He was cruel?”
“There were three of us. Three brothers. I was the youngest, which means I was the one left behind when they enlisted.” Memories are black as night. “To say he was cruel is to call this cell cold. It can’t come close to describing the bone-deep chill.”
“I’m sorry,” she says softly. “I can’t imagine.”
“That’s a good thing. No one should know what it’s like.”
“I love my sister. We fought like crazy and then we would hug and go to sleep in the same bed, even when we were ten years old we slept on the same twin bed. No matter what my parents did they couldn’t get us to sleep in separate rooms. Until she discovered boys.”
“Your parents,” I ask gingerly. “Are they alive?”
“Oh yes.” Her voice turns soft. “Very much alive and well. After travelling the world, they settled in northern New York. Every other weekend they drive to Niagara Falls.”
“Do they know where you are?” It’s both a good and bad thing if they do.
“No,” she says. “My sister and I have a long-standing pact, going all the way from when we were little. We don’t tattle on the other one. We don’t get each other in trouble. We don’t make our parents worry if we don’t have to. For example, London never told them she found me with a boy outside the cathedral in Reims.”
I have this sudden memory, this recollection of tasting her.
You don’t know the way I have sex. It’s rough, Holly. It’s… disrespectful. Cruel. You deserve better than that, especially for your first time.
I’m embarrassed that I told her that. She was so innocent. Too innocent for me to even touch. What the fuck had I been thinking? I hope she found some kind, gentle person to take her virginity. Someone who would whisper sweet words and hold her afterward.
“He was cruel,” I say, though that’s an understatement.
It’s hard to explain for someone with loving, if quirky, parents. They can never fully understand what it’s like to know fear before you know love.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers. “Is that why you killed him?”
I was beaten and burned and battered to within an inch of death, but it didn’t hurt as much as the memory. Searing pain through my body that no amount of fighting or fucking ever really remove. I keep thinking that one more job will make me forget, but it won’t.
Soft hands move gently over my arm, my side, noting when I stiffen. She curls herself into the side of my chest like a cat seeking warmth. Or offering warmth. Her head rests on my shoulder. With shock I realize this is how it would have been—if I had fucked her eight years ago, if I had held her afterwards. This many years later, we’re having that moment of intimacy I’d been too afraid to take. And why? Maybe I shouldn’t have pushed her away. What would have happened if I’d told her everything about the Louvre and the diamond?
#2 (Silver Lining)
“Stars,” I tell her, and the scene springs to life in front of me. The church basement and the cot with its white sheets dissolve into a humming dark. “There would be a million stars to look at. Skies so clear we could lie there and watch the constellations rise and set. We’d bring blankets and lay them out to watch. It would be warm if we held onto each other.”
Holly’s eyes flutter closed. The corner of her mouth curls in a smile. “Keep going.”
“We’d find a brook to drink from. Or maybe a lake, the kind that appears so suddenly. One minute there’s grass and ground. The next there’s water filled with reeds. They’d wave above the water while we slept. Or while we didn’t sleep.”
She laughs, the sound as dreamy as her eyes. Holly leans into my touch, her cheek warm against my palm. Blissfully warm. Heat means she’s alive. I haven’t stopped touching her, but I should.
“The ripples move through the reeds and onto the grass. They’re steady. And calm, for our camping trip. Calm water. The same sound wakes us up in the morning with the sun. Time means nothing out there. Everyone has enough.”
I don’t know what I’m saying anymore, but I keep talking. There are enough words to describe a day on the shore of the lake. A swim. An afternoon in the shade of a tent. An evening with a blazing sunset over the reeds and the water. Food over a campfire. Hot dogs and marshmallows. Innocent things. Things that make people like Holly happy. Stars, infinite stars.
Her breathing evens out. Gets deeper. I still can’t pull my hand away from her face. Not for a long time. The sunset is long over outside the church by the time I stand up and go about the second set of tasks. Getting rid of old gauze. Setting out new supplies. Counting her pills. We have enough water. There’s enough food. I turn off the overhead light and turn on an antique lamp brought down from the old church office.
It’s only when I take my seat again and listen to Holly’s deep breathing that I realize—
I wasn’t describing some fictional campground.
I was describing the woods in France where I fucked her for the first time. That’s my definition of peace. That’s the place I’d go back to if I could.