Random extract from Chapter Six: Jeremy.

I grimaced and released a heavy sigh, my bottom lip stinging as a trickle of warmth ran over my lip. I licked it, tasting the ferrous tang of fresh blood. It was my fault my fucking lip was split open. I shoulda remembered that bastard had a powerful right hook, but in my eagerness to see Cass, that little detail had unfortunately slipped my mind.

“Cass.” As her name drifted over my lips in the barest whisper of an exhalation something inside my chest twisted, making me feel slightly breathless momentarily.

My beautiful, sweet Cassie.

The only girl I’d ever truly loved.

I felt a huge lump settle in the pit of my guts as I twisted the accelerator, the powerful engine throbbing beneath me as the bike leapt away and inside my leather glove I felt the tightness in my knuckles from where I’d ploughed my fist into Reynolds’s cheek.

No pain had ever felt sweeter.

To have been so close and not even get a chance to see her or fucking talk to her, had killed me.

Jeremy Hoffman

Strange Liaisons: The story of Lucretia and Pieter.

~ Lucretia ~

“Shit. Shit. Shit,” I swore, my nose crinkling in disgust, my hand white-knuckled around the cool plastic handle of the plain black umbrella. The umbrella that I’d forked out some ridiculous amount of cash for from the shonky old man’s small roadside stall. The stall — mind you — that’d just magically popped up as soon as the rain had started.

Like the giggles after a session with the ganja-goddess.

Propping his weight with one gnarly hand curled around the handle of an age-darkened walking stick, the elderly gent had stood proudly in his raggedy clothing beneath the shop eaves. My chest had tightened as I’d watched him as he’d hawked his wares in a shaky voice to the trickles of tourists who approached him. I watched, brows drawn as they stepped off the sidewalk, noses in the air, their gazes never making eye-contact with him as they’d continued to rush to their own destinations.

Lunch maybe. Or perhaps a morning of sightseeing, like me. Maybe they were hot-footing it to seedy hotels for clandestine hook-ups.

Scratching my cheek, I remembered feeling sorry for him. That, and the fact that I was rapidly getting drenched, had clinched the deal. My money had departed from my purse quicker than a cockroach scurrying from the light.

That was me to a tee, the girl who’d brought home every stray dog and cat that gave me the ‘please-love-me-eyes.’ I couldn’t help myself. I was a born softie. I just couldn’t resist a soul in need of love and care.

I tugged on the handle as a gust of wind threatened to tear it out of my fingers. “Grrr. You dodgy bastard,” I snapped between gritted teeth, my patience evaporating with every second I battled with the rogue umbrella. Shaking my head, I cursed again as my attention wandered momentarily from where my feet were being placed and I managed to sink to my ankles in another bloody puddle.

Jesus Christ, my poor shoes.

My crazy need to nurture and save the downtrodden, the unwanted and as it turned out, the downright scary, had led to some truly shitty choices in boyfriends as I’d got older. It had taken a few broken hearts, and one night of drunken violence, to learn the lesson that not every bad-boy wanted to be looked after.

Or saved.

I swallowed hard and before I could stop myself, my fingers automatically drifted up to the slightly raised scar on the right side of my head. I lightly skated the pads of my index and middle fingers over my battle scar. Even though the physical evidence of an empty beer bottle to my head was long healed and well hidden beneath my hair, the memory of it was still raw in my soul. The pain caused by my ex’s nuclear-like anger and his cruel betrayal of my love for him, bubbled and festered beneath the surface. It was a like a splinter in my flesh, a never-ending twinge of pain which served to constantly remind me to steer clear of bad-boys.

That experience had made me gun-shy. Very. I’d steered clear of men like that after him; muscular strutting men who were all inked, pierced and had sex-appeal oozing from every delicious inch of their hard as iron bodies. They were selfish and didn’t deserve my love. Well the ones I’d fallen for never had, and I was never going to dip my toes in that pool again to see if anything had changed with the passing of time.

No way.

It wasn’t worth the loss of my self-esteem or pride. Or the risk of harm.

I found myself slowly changing my habits in the dating game. I gravitated towards places where I knew a different species of male congregated. A gentler, less dangerous-looking kind. I found myself in chic, well put together upmarket bistros, lively Tapas bars and swanky boutique-type watering holes. After my episode with the drunken arsehole, I only dated men who wore suits, not tight Tees and well-fitting jeans and arse-kicker boots. Ones with neat hairdos, not buzzed heads, or long hair I wanted to tangle my fingers all up in. Grab handfuls of as I lost myself to their over-powering sexual skills.

I sighed.

I wanted men who sat behind desks, not behind the wheel of hotted-up supercharged hoon cars.

Men who looked like the hardest workout they ever did was crunch numbers all day.

Not someone’s head or face. With their fists.

Hurt me once, shame on me.

Hurt me twice….

Well, fuck you mister.

Taking in a deep breath I released it in an angry snort as a headache threatened, the throbbing behind my eyes the sign that it was gonna be a bad-bitch when it hit. I curled my fingers around the umbrella’s handle until they turned white. I had a sudden mad urge to stamp my foot, and then toss the shitting thing to the fiery pits of Hell. Let the Devil have the piece of shit.

“Holy freakout, this damn thing’s as useless as tits on a bull,” I cried as another wet-gust whipped at me.

The rain had grown steadier over the last hour and was now officially teeming. Sideways. There were lake-like puddles laying everywhere, which try as I may I just couldn’t avoid stepping in. This part of the old city was like a rabbit warren; full of side streets and alleys.

“Bloody hell,” I huffed out as I peeked at my surroundings from beneath the rim of the wildly flapping brolly. My eyes landed on the architecture which lined both sides of this narrow street, the tops spearing into the low-hanging belly of the gloomy sky, and this time I really looked at what I’d been steadily ignoring since the battle of me versus the umbrella had started.

My breath caught. The buildings were truly beautiful. Even now, even though the pale stonework was darkened a gunmetal-grey by the rain, the elegance and craftsmanship of the carvings in the mediaeval buildings was truly stunning, and I took a moment to appreciate the skill of the unknown workmen of long ago as I smoothed my hand over the wet stone, feeling the lines and shapes of the miniature dragons and gargoyles beneath my palm.

Dropping my hand, I turned in a circle and shivered as ripples of goosebumps feathered across my skin. From cold and the first inklings of fear.

“I’m so lost.”

The rain had now turned into a monsoonal-like downpour. I was soaked to the core. A drowned rat. My light summer dress clung uncomfortably to my wet skin, my hair hung down limply in surfer’s dreadies, the pretty, lightly curled style I’d fussed at least half an hour over, long gone. Clamping my jaws closed, the sound of my teeth grinding over each other was like fingernails scraping down a blackboard.

Without even checking out my reflection in the passing shop windows, I was well aware that I looked as close to elegant as a horse resembled a dog. And that wasn’t even close.

Just at that particular moment, my morning slipped up a notch on the ‘awesome-scale of great mornings.’ With a whining screech of stressed wire and flimsy material the umbrella finally gave up the ghost. Turning itself inside out, it resembled a fish’s bony skeleton picked clean of flesh.

Closing my eyes, I tipped my head back, and swore silently at the sky before stalking over to a tall concrete encased rubbish bin. Jamming the umbrella inside, my lips twisted up into a wicked smile as the ridiculous thing disappeared into a sinkhole of clinking, rustling garbage.

~ * ~ * ~

 

Roughly tucking my hair back behind my ears, I kept my gaze down. Blinking rapidly as the raindrops landed on my lashes, I side-stepped a shimmering puddle and let loose a squeal as my heels skidded like roller skates on the slippery cobblestones. Throwing my arms out to the side, I wind-milled them, my cheeks heating as a few heads turned to see what the commotion was.

I held my hands up, palms facing outward in the universal sign for ‘I give up’ and released my held in breath as they flashed me weak smiles and turned away.

“Holy-shitting-mother-of-a-bastard. I hate this godforsaken country,” I hissed as I stomped up another narrow alley, my arms pumping by my side like a determined athlete as I tried to ignore the waterfall running in cool rivulets down my scalp, into my eyes and down along the line of my spine. My hands fisted as I cast another glance around at the bleak rain darkened surroundings.

“How the hell am I supposed to get back to the hotel if I don’t even know where I am?”

As my parents had been born in this country, I did understood a little of the native language and could probably fumble my way (with the help of hand gestures) through an explanation of my situation to a cabbie when I found one, but I wasn’t very confident in its use.

Unfortunately, I’d been born in the ‘burbs of Sydney, Australia after my parents had migrated there twenty plus years ago and as I’d only ever spoken English at school and home, I wasn’t very fluent in my parents’ native tongue.

In spite of my miserable situation, I snickered, a smile tilting my lips up as I remembered some of the embarrassing pickles I’d found myself in as a teen when all the extended family had come to the house for Christmas, and the assorted baptisms and funerals that accompanied a large ethnic family.

I’d always managed to stick my foot in my mouth and say the most inappropriate things – all in complete innocence and error of course. And always in front of my older relations and cheeky older male cousins – who of course knew the language better than I did.

“God, they’d been real little bastards to me back then,” I whispered, wiping the rain of my face with a wet hand.

Up ahead, through the slanting grey veil, I forgot all about tangled tongues and mangled languages as I spied a shop’s window, its warm, welcoming glow spilling out onto the wet street, the soft golden light the only colour in my wet, grey world. Glancing down at my watch, I wiped the wet glass on my even wetter dress as I saw through the fogged glass that it was now five pm.

Looking around, I discovered with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that all of the other shops in this quaint little cobblestoned alley, had long closed for the night. Bending my head down against the icy drops of rain I heaved a sigh and headed to the shop’s door, a drenched moth to the candlelight.

As I walked, doing my utmost to avoid any more of the silvery puddles that lay between the indents and hollows made by the cobblestones, I frowned as my feet made little squelching noises. Pursing my lips, I looked at my muddy, sodden shoes.

“These were my best high heels and now they’re bloody ruined,” I spat, feeling myself beginning to lose control. Today had just been too much, and I was so over it all.

Standing in front of the window and peering in I was struck by the odd look of the shop, but any port in a storm was good. Reaching out, I grasped the ornate golden door-knob and turned it.

There was a sweet high tinkling sound as the door opened and I stepped over the threshold and into the shop proper. My nose wrinkled. The air smelt slightly musty, but not unpleasantly so.

I took another step in and as the door closed shut behind me I glanced around, struck by the sheer mish-mash of objects on display. Narrow aisles crisscrossed the room, in-between the towering jumble of curios for sale.

I saw old brass lamps, green with age, perched on what looked like antique tables. These in turn were placed next to tired looking dressers, and solid carved bookcases stuffed with books so ancient their spines were tattered and illegible with age.

My eyes shot to the walls and my nose crinkled with distaste.

Mounted deer heads, their glassy eyes dulled with dust, their racks strung with chains of cobweb looked down on me as if begging for their release, while along the walkway stood racks and racks of faded vintage clothing. But it was the paintings which caught my eye. Propped haphazardly on scattered threadbare chairs they drew me in, they seemed to brighten up the room like sunrays streaming out from behind clouds.

My heels clicked lightly as I squelched my way down the narrow aisle towards one of the artworks. My hand rose and extended out, my fingertips trailing lightly across the bumps and ridges of the ancient, cracked oils. The artist had cleverly depicted scenes of satyrs and fairies and other mythical creatures as they cavorted in sunlit meadows. The fields were sprinkled with painted flowers so life-like, I could almost smell their heady perfumes. Dream-like I brushed my fingers over the velvety painted-petals.

At that same moment a clap of thunder rolled across the heavens, shaking me from my trance. My hand paused mid-stroke and I felt a wave of sadness wash over me as the magic thread connecting me to the painting sizzled out, leaving cold dusty paint beneath my touch.

Rolling my eyes at my silliness, and with my cheeks heating, I dropped my hand and walked deeper into the shop. There was so much to take in and my head swivelled from side to side as I stared, mesmerized by the oddity and sheer variety of the myriad trinkets placed about the room.

And then, I saw them. My breath caught and my hand rose, my fingers splaying out over my chest, just above my racing heart.

They were placed on a dirty glass shelf in the left-hand side of the room. The room’s soft light caught them at just the right angle. A perfect angle which made them shimmer with an enchanting, tempting glow. A magical glimmer which beckoned to me, while in my mind I heard echoes of soft whispers cajoling me so sweetly, “Take us home Lucretia, we’re yours. You deserve us.”

Trancelike I approached them.

Oh good lord, they were even more gorgeous up close.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood to attention, as I slowly reached out and reverently touched them. It was just the tiniest touch. Really only just a slight graze with the pad of my index and middle finger. But at the feel of them beneath my skin, I quivered and a tiny moan escaped my parted lips as frissons of pleasure fizzled through my body.

Shit, what would they feel like to wear? I felt light-headed with excitement at the thought.

They were simply the most stunning shoes I’d ever seen and there was no way in hell, I was leaving the shop without them in my possession.

And, on my feet.

Crafted from fine Italian leather — I didn’t know how many light years away the sun was to the earth, or any other planet for that matter, nor did I know how to cook Cordon Bleu — but I most certainly knew shoes and these beauties were definitely Italian leather.

(And for the record, I could whip up a mean microwave dinner.)

I knew I was what some would call a footwear-connoisseur and right now, right this second, all I wanted was to frigging ‘connoisseur’ these gorgeous shoes onto my feet and then back home.

Hugging myself, I stood wide-eyed before the glass altar with the holy-shoe-relics perched on top, my breaths coming in quick little stabs. I blinked, not amazed at all at my body’s excited reaction to a pair of shoes. It happened whenever I spied the perfect set of heels. That’s why I had probably two hundred pairs tucked away safely in clear plastic shoe-boxes in my closet.

Some buys were just too hard to say no to.

Squirming, I tore my eyes away momentarily from the heeled treasures and scanned the room, glad no one was here to witness my almost-orgasmic meltdown as I drooled over them.

Leaning in, I inhaled the rich scent of expensive leather with a slight lower note of eau de dust. Their colour had appeared at first glance, to be a deep maroon, but upon closer inspection, I saw I’d been mistaken. They were more of a sensual, red colour; exactly the shade of a ruby.

With small little bows placed on the toes and a heel which was just the perfect height, they were exquisite.

They were fucking sexy.

They screamed sex.

I swallowed as my heart sped up as I gazed lovingly at them.

In lust with them.

And best of all, they were my size, a seven.

Maybe getting lost today was serendipity?

“I have to have them,” I cooed.

Just then a noise from the back of the room caught my attention. Spinning around, I caught a glimpse of the tiniest woman that I’d ever seen walking towards me. She looked like she would only come up to my neck, and she was dressed in the quaintest little outfit.

Swallowing back a nervous giggle, I twisted my hands in the damp folds of my dress as mad thoughts raced across my mind as to who this woman was.

The shop owner? Maybe, she was another customer who came in here fifty years, got lost amongst the curios and then went mad? She sure looked like a blast from the past.

Shuffling my feet on the dusty floor, I briefly glanced down, biting my tongue. It would be incredibly rude to laugh. Especially when I probably looked like shit as well. Rain-drenched shit. And this wasn’t my country. What would I know? I hadn’t been here long enough to know their customs.

Perhaps it was tradition to dress like a…a…I didn’t know quite what she was dressed like. A performer in the opera? An actress in an ethnic movie?

The woman had on a voluminous multi-coloured skirt, and a blouse with long puffy sleeves, buttoned up the front with delicate mother-of-pearl buttons. Covering her head was a floral scarf. From beneath its pattern of bright cheery flowers, I saw wisps of shiny silver hair peeking out, while from her earlobes dangled large silver hoops, completing the hippy slash gypsy look she had going on.

Her face was kindly though, with a network of fine wrinkles radiating out from the corners of bright blue eyes. Her nose long, but finely shaped. As I watched her approach, her mouth turned up at the corners in a warm and welcoming smile and I found myself smiling in return.

Seeing the shoes, the old woman’s smile grew even larger. I noticed that the woman’s teeth were perfect. Straight, white and not one missing. They were obviously her own.

My brows knitted before rising again. Odd for an elderly person, I assumed silently.

“You are liking zese shoes, no?” She asked me in heavily accented English. “Zey are shoes most special, Miss,” she added, showing me more of those perfect teeth. “Only for zat special person do I sells zem.” Her eye twitched manically as she stood waiting for my reply.

Not wishing to embarrass her by staring at the weird eye thingy she was doing, I dropped my gaze and stared at her nose as I answered, “How much do you want for them?”

“For you, I sell for five hundred delons. A bargain,” she replied, her head bobbing like a balloon on a string as her lips parted in a cheery smile.

And right on cue there came those dazzling, supermodel teeth. Deadset, the old lady was a dentist’s wet-dream.

My face grew hot, despite the room being slightly cool. I fanned my face with a shaky hand as beads of sweat broke out across my forehead as I quickly did the sums in my head. My stomach filled with thousands of butterflies all flying up into my chest, making it hard to breathe. Holy shit!

My mouth dropped open and I sucked back a quick shuddering breath.

Five. Hundred. Delons.

That worked out at only one hundred and fifty dollars.

Holy heart-attack.

The old lady was right. It was a bargain for such exquisite shoes. I couldn’t better that at home.

Well, not unless I bought those shit bargain-store things, which fell apart within the first month. Losing their buckles, or heels. Or, even worse, the soles splitting and peeling away like your back after falling asleep in the sun on the beach and suffering a tenth-degree case of sunburn.

That cheap shit was a fucking trip-hazard just waiting to happen, because they were usually held together with stitches sewn with fairies’ eyelashes and glued with dabs of unicorn shit.

I knew this embarrassing fact first-hand and I groaned as I remembered.

How….

I’d face-planted into an elevator and its full cargo of sexy suit-clad businessmen last year. Catching their eyes, I’d attempted the sexy, hips-swaying walk over the elevator’s metal threshold and kabaam, my one week old sole had chosen that moment to flap like a fucking gossip’s tongue, and kerfoof, down I’d gone.

Like an elegantly dressed bag of shit.

I couldn’t remember who’d been more mortified. Me, or the suave and worldly businessmen.

I cringed at the memory. Never again, I swore silently.

Shaking my head, I flicked the memory into my mental rubbish bin. Out of sight, out of mind, was my motto.

“Done!” My lips curved up. “I’ll take them.” Before the last word was out of my mouth, I was already reaching into my bag, eager fingers closing around my faux crocodile-skin purse. Catching the old lady’s eye, I practically dribbled, “They’re the most beautiful shoes I’ve ever seen. My shoes were ruined in the rain… “I grinned like the Cheshire Cat wacked out on ecstasy, “…so as you can appreciate, I desperately need another pair.”

Oh god. My fingers tingled to hold the shoes. I began to tremble with need, and rising up onto my toes I rocked up and down.

The old lady rubbed the side of her nose and nodded. She looked like she had the answer to the secrets of the universe and was just about to spill all. “Zis is good buying, Miss. Zese are shoes zee very best and you will not be regrettings your choices.”

After paying, I slipped them on, thrilled to discover they fit as if made just for me.

They felt like they were made of gossamer, so light on my feet. Turning around to thank the woman for the shoes, I was surprised to discover that she’d gone. It was if she’d just disappeared into thin air.

Frowning, and as hard as I could, I just couldn’t recall hearing the woman exit the room. Very strange, I thought, but not for long. The allure of the new shoes, soon overcame any worries I had about the magical disappearance of the woman.

Spinning around, I admired the feel and the look of the shoes. I stopped, frozen on the spot. Looking down, I realised my dress was floating with the movements of my rotating body. Strange, it shouldn’t be doing that, it was sodden only a few moments ago.

Looking at my watch, I was stunned to see that two hours had passed.

“Where did the time gone?” I whispered, my eyes going to the dusty front window.

My heart dropped like a stone into the very depths of my stomach.

Outside night had well and truly fallen and the rain had ceased. Walking briskly to the door, I nervously chewed on my bottom lip as I turned the knob and stepped through the doorway.

As I did, a slight tingling sensation rippled through my body and I gasped, my hand going to my chest. The feeling passed so quickly, I thought perhaps it was imagined. Shaking my head I pulled the door closed and stepped out from under the shop-front, and the sight that met my eyes caused me to pause mid-step.

When I’d entered the alley, there’d been electric lighting. Granted, there’d only been a smattering of poles and wires but they’d been there.

But now, they’d gone and in their stead stood elegant gas lamps. The eerie, soft-yellow light which pooled around their bases combined with curling wisps of mist gave the alley a surreal look. Almost of another era, it was most certainly not the same place it’d been earlier.

Turning back to the shop, I was shocked to see that the charming window which moments earlier had been lit gently from within, was now just a blank and dirt-smeared window. Wiping a small circle in the grimy glass I peeked inside and saw that where there’d been trinkets and goods for sale, there was now empty spaces and dusty shelving. Across the length of the ceiling, filthy cobwebs draped towards the floor like worn curtains. They looked decades old. And most certainly, undisturbed.

I shook my head. ‘What the hell?” Blinking I looked again.

But it was the same thing….Nothing.

A sick sensation twisted my stomach and my mouth dried up.

What the hell was happening here? First the lost hours, and now the whole world that I’d strolled through earlier was gone. Inexplicably replaced with this strange and unfamiliar world.

Sluggish and dreamlike, I stepped away from the deserted shop window and out onto the still damp cobblestones. Shadows embraced the alley in dark velvety embraces, and the cool mist, almost playfully, curled its chilly fingers around my feet and ankles.

Shivering, I wished I’d worn more than a light dress. In the bright cheerful light of a holiday morning, the dress, with its fashionable cut and fabric, had appeared perfect for a lazy day of sightseeing.

But, as I was now sadly realising, it wasn’t such a wise choice after all.

My heart was racing. I had to get back to the hotel — somehow — and standing here was not going to make that happen any faster. I ran my fingers into my hair and tugged, wincing as a few strands plucked out of my scalp. White noise echoed in my ears as I struggled to understand what was happening.

“Think Lucretia. Think.”

I nodded as the fog in my head cleared just enough to allow the answer to materialise. All I needed to do was walk to the main road and hail a taxi. Easy-peasy. Setting my shoulders back, I hiked my big-girl undies up and turning I walked off towards where I assumed the city-centre was located.

Bright lights, bustling people, taxis and well-staffed hotel, equated to safety in my mind.

The gas lamps hissed softly, throwing out a creepy, horror-movie-type glow. The light flickered and danced off the darkened and deserted shop fronts which were all crammed together like chocolates in a box.

I wrapped my arms around myself, my eyes flicking from side to side as I made my way towards the mouth of the alley, my footsteps echoing up and down the quiet street.

“What’s happened to me? This kind of thing only happens in movies, never in real life.”

Dropping my arms, I massaged my brows with the heel of my hand as the headache from earlier danced across the back of my eyes like a drunk hippo in steel-soled gumboots.

Halfway up the alley, the hairs on the back of my neck prickled. I paused and turned to the darkened window-front on my left, my hands fisting in the sides of my dress. Squinting, I tipped my head sideways, staring at the quaint lettering on the glass, attempting to read it.

I think it read, Madame Zchemenka’s House of…something or other.

I racked my brain for the childhood lessons I’d had learning this language, before my parents had thrown their hands up in despair at my ineptitude.

My face scrunched up in concentration.

What did those little squiggles and curly dashes beneath the letters mean again? I exhaled noisily. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember. And then the proverbial light bulb pinged above my head and my brow rose as I thought I had the translation down pat.

Madame Whatshername either sold shit, or perfume from her creepy-looking shop. In my opinion, they sometimes smelt the same. I shrugged and my bag slipped down my shoulder.

“It’s pretty much six of one and half a dozen of the other,” I said, my not-so-brave voice swallowed up by the whirling fog. Hiking the bag’s strap up I went to turn away but froze as my scalp contracted.

I leaned forward and narrowed my eyes at the Shit slash Perfumery shop. I could’ve sworn from the icy sensations scooting up and down my spine that someone was watching me from behind that deceptively empty looking glass front. But there was nothing. Only a blank window.

I barked out a laugh as I turned away and kept walking. My laugh sounding too high and shrill, quite possibly verging on hysterical.

My new shoes clicked sharply on the cobblestones, the only sounds apart from the soft hiss of the gaslights, in this curious alternate world that I’d now found myself plunged into. And then, from up ahead, came a new sound.

“Thank god, civilisation.”

I picked up my pace, the pulse in my neck jumping wildly. My mouth so dry, I struggled to swallow.

Clip-clop. Clip-clop. Clip-clop. The sounds appeared to be coming from just beyond the exit to this madhouse. My chest hurt and I sucked back a pained breath as I power-walked towards the sound. Not an easy feat up-hill in heels. Oh, and don’t let me omit the fact, that I’ve never powerwalked in my life. Anywhere. I coughed, my hand curling around my left hip as a raging stitch sank its teeth into me. Bastard.

But, I didn’t give a shit about minute details like the fact I couldn’t breathe without feeling like I might hack my tortured lungs up, or that my legs were on fire? Or, that I had a cramp the size of Africa in my side? I kept putting one foot in-front of the other, all the while keeping my eyes glued on the prize: The exit which lay just up ahead.

The cobblestones were as slippery as ice, and I so didn’t want to crash down on my arse, but I never slowed my pace and within a few minutes I finally arrived. And immediately felt faint. My legs wobbled beneath me, and I closed my eyes in an effort to block out the sight that greeted me.

My breath shuddered out of me.

This shit was like nothing I’d ever seen before.

Except in the movies.

I opened my eyes and slowly scanned them around. It was another alley, just like the one that I’d practically sprinted out of. But unlike that one, this new one was brimming with life and light.

I stood there in shock, my mouth wide open like a gasping fish as the cause of the sound I’d heard earlier came into sight. It was….

I wanted to vomit with the realisation of what it was — it was a freaking horse-drawn carriage. Quickly followed by another one.

What the fuck?

As my over-wound mind tried to process everything, a scraping metallic sound snapped me out of it as the horse’s iron-shod hooves skid across the cobblestones, followed by the sharp snap of a whip cracking.

“Get out of my way you stupid wench. Do you suffer from a brain sickness? You’ll get yourself killed standing there like a simpleton,” the carriage driver yelled.

My fuzzy brain managed — somehow — to translate his guttural curses. But before I could utter back some witty retort, he turned his attentions from me and back to his horse. With a fierce shout of “Whoa,” he planted his feet against the footboard and leaned back. Wrapping the long reins around his wrists, he pulled backwards in an effort to stop the beast from bolting.

I blinked and numbly stepped to the side, as the reckless and abusive driver and his steed from hell went on their way. Hopefully straight through the gates of Hell, I thought and laughed. I pressed a hand to my chest and pushed, trying to stop the madness I could feel bubbling up in my chest from escaping in a long shrill scream.

I scurried across the cobblestones, only slipping the once and with of huff of relief I stepped up onto the sidewalk, my legs and hands still trembling after my near miss with Lucifer’s Driver and his satanic horse. As I walked in the direction that I hoped would bring me out near a Police Station or somewhere I could get help, I couldn’t fail to notice the groups of oddly dressed people lurking on the sidewalk.

Conversations stuttered and then ceased as I passed. I wanted to shrink into the ground as I felt their eyes burning into my back. Spying a sign with a tankard and goat pictured on it swinging from a shop front just ahead, I made a dash for it, tears burning the back of my throat.

Feeling self-conscious and more than a little afraid, I scampered towards the tavern, trying and failing to ignore the curious stares, my heels clicking loudly on the cobblestones. Glancing sideways from under my lashes I quickly looked away before any eye contact could be made. Never look them in the eye. Everyone knew that rule.

The tavern’s entrance loomed before me and I released a shuddering sigh. Maybe someone inside would be able to help? Pushing open the door — which squealed in protest on rusty hinges — I stepped into the room. It was crowded and at the squeak, all heads swivelled in my direction. Through a thick swirling haze of blue tobacco smoke I saw that perhaps coming in here was not a good idea after all.

Scattered around the smoky room were large wooden tables framed with long benches. Squashed on the seating like hairy sardines in a can, were the nastiest bunch of people I’d ever had the misfortune to see. The bulk of them were men, their hulking frames clothed in a clone-like uniform of tattered, dirty shirts, pants and, I dropped my gaze to the putrid floor, muddied shit-kicker boots. Their hardened, filthy faces were framed with scruffy beards, while long hanks of matted hair brushed against dirty bull-necks.

They looked like pirates, or grave-robbers….

My breath whistled out through clenched teeth.

Or killers.

My legs began to tremble and I gulped back a scream. Rooted to the spot, my stomach twisted painfully as I saw them lazily look me up and down, their eyes glittering like rats’ eyes in the torchlight with unbridled lust.

Oh fuck.

“Bloody hell,” I mouthed.

My breathing grew shallow as I realised that their lust-filled expressions clearly telegraphed to me that they were liking what they saw. Coming in here was so not my best idea today, I thought way too late.

I tore my eyes away and they skittered across the rest of the room. I noticed that there were a few women hovering around the tables; like hunched over vultures waiting for the prey to gasp its last breath and keel over. Most of them straddled the men’s laps, filthy muddied skirts hiked up around pale dimpled thighs. Urgh.

They stared at me with open hostility and I cringed as their lips peeled back, showing gaps in the gums which were surrounded by crooked, blackened teeth.

It appeared as if they’d been added to this testosterone-laden stew as an afterthought. An effort to even out the sexes some.

I blinked, my eyes stinging with unshed tears and from the thick acrid smoke. I hiccupped back a sob, feeling it settling like a lump of flaming coal in my chest as I imagined how that process had gone down.

As in….Oh yeah, rightio. There’s too many blokes, so we better just chuck a few bitches around the room. Just to even out the score some.

My lip began to wobble and I dragged it between my teeth, biting down until the iron taste of blood seeped into my mouth as I felt myself judged and condemned by this odd crowd.

~ * ~ * ~

~ Pieter ~

Sitting up towards the back of the room, almost hidden behind a tall post, I’d heard the squeal of the door’s hinges, but paid no mind to it. Just another cutthroat or pickpocket, I’d supposed.

I was well aware that this particular tavern was a popular haunt with all the seedy, dangerous characters that lurked around, hiding themselves beneath the skirts of polite society. But the anonymity it afforded me was the main reason I gave it my patronage and coin. I found that the drinking establishments of my own peers smothered me. They were stuffy, and pretentious and I hated them. Unlike the rest of the paying customers — and I use that term loosely — here tonight, I didn’t live around this immediate area. My home was situated further up the hill, almost at the top. But not quite. The top was reserved for those other bandits of the society I lived in, the wealthy citizens.

The bankers. Lawyers. The smart criminals.

Confused, I looked up, my goblet of rough house red paused half-way to my mouth as a pall of utter silence settled over the room; the chatter and arguing voices of the men, and the giggles and squeals of the strumpets simply ceasing.

I shifted along my seat and leaning over — so I could see around the pole — I swung my gaze towards the door. As I saw the vision standing perfectly still in the doorway, my mouth dropped open. I sat my untouched drink down and as my fingers wrapped around the cool metal mug, my eyes greedily raked over her. Drinking her in.

This woman was unlike any I’d ever seen before. She wore a strange dress that skimmed down her body, clinging to curves that I’m ashamed to say made my heart beat a little faster. She had a glorious mane of flaming auburn hair, with curls that cascaded down and settled in little ringlets around a stunning face.

From my vantage point, hidden in the shadowy, smoky depths I brazenly studied her.

I saw two eyes of a bright clear blue scan the crowd and I watched them cloud over with terror. Her lips — which were a deep shade of carmine — trembled and I noticed how her hands visibly shook as she clasped them together.

The fright on her face made my chest tighten and I clenched my tankard a little firmer.

Slowly and as timidly as a newborn fawn, she moved a little further into the room. Her feet made noisy clicking noises on the filthy floor, in the silence, they were as loud as a pistol shot. Shifting a little further out on the seat, I followed a set of shapely legs down and gawked at her feet, stunned to see the strangest footwear I’d ever seen.

A deep red, they had delicate little bows on the toes and quite high heels. How she walked in them, I had no idea. But what they did to this strange woman’s legs was something that I most definitely approved of. In fact, I had to adjust my pants discreetly before any of the pox-riddled whores saw my hard dick and leapt on my lap.

I shuddered at the thought of sticking my cock in any of the filthy beasts that worked this tavern and the surrounding streets down to the waterfront.

Sensing the growing hostility in the room from the other women, and some of the men, my gut tightened and without a second thought I decided that it was up to me to rescue her. Pushing up from the table, I left my untouched drink and a few coins and made my way briskly to the front of the room.

I was right to be wary. Just before I reached her, one of the men sitting closest, stood and stepped up to her. She froze as he grabbed a handful of her hair and ran it through his claws.

I quickened my pace.

As I reached her, I decided that my eyes had not done her justice, she was so much more beautiful up close. Unfortunately for her, the mongrel dog mauling her was Mica, a notorious thief and rumored smuggler.

At my appearance behind him, he turned and raked blackened eyes up and down me, his lips curling back off rotten teeth. “Piss off Pieter,” he grunted, and I nearly recoiled at the stench of alcohol, rot and body odour that drifted from him. “I saw her first, you can afford to buy one of those high priced whores. Now, us poor folk have to make do with what is in our own backyards.” He placed a hand on my chest and gripping a handful of my shirt, he raised his other hand and clipped me upside the jaw.

My head jerked to the side and I tasted blood as I bit my tongue.

Stupid move you grubby little bastard.

I grabbed my chin and moved my jaw from side to side. My breath steamed out in harsh pants and before he could swing again I drew my arm back and slammed my fist into his nose, a nice sense of satisfaction heating my blood as I heard the sharp crack of bone breaking.

As his friends dragged him away, him kicking at them and throwing curses at me, I turned my attentions to the stranger.

She swung those stunning eyes away from a cursing Mica and onto me, and I saw the unspoken plea for help in their shining depths and also her utter confusion.

Reaching out my hand, I clasped her tiny one in mine. Making my voice as soothing as possible I said, “Come with me, you’re not safe here. My name’s Pieter and I mean you no harm. I will, with your approval of course, take you somewhere where you’ll be safe.”

She stared at me with those wide eyes and a strangled noise escaped her parted lips. She reacted to words as if I was braying at her like a donkey, so I repeated myself and was finally rewarded with a slight bob of her head in mute acquiesce.

Placing my hand on the small of her back I turned her around and slowly led her back outside and into the night.

The foggy mist had deepened and the rain had returned. Soft and dewy, it settled on our hair and clothing like sparkling jewels. Turning in the direction of the hill I gently linked her arm through mine and as she didn’t object to the closeness I made for home.

After five minutes of quiet walking, the rain stopped. I raised my head and saw a million stars twinkling and looking away I caught a flash of silver on the horizon, as the moon started her ascent. Inhaling deeply, I drew the fresh air into me, cleansing my lungs of the stale, sweaty stench from the tavern.

***END OF PART ONE***

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Photo used under licence with Stockfresh

 Handsome couple stock photo © Konrad Bąk (konradbak

***Author’s Note: This story was one I started way back in 2011 and it was one that I just wrote for my Facebook friends. It was never intended to be for publishing. As you can surely tell, this story isn’t historically correct and I never intended it to be and I deliberately never named the country/city that Lucretia and Pieter are in. As the reader I prefer that you imagine the place, that way you can make it anywhere you like. You can let your imaginations soar. (I reckon that’s the charm of fiction and imagination.) When it started way back, this story was just a way for me to give the annoying voices in my imagination an outlet for their story… and, with any luck someone would enjoy reading it. I put it on the back-burner and over the years — and in-between writing my other stories —  I’d find myself occasionally dragging it out of its wee spot on my desktop to write a little more and tinker with it before putting it away again. But, this time I thought I’d give it a little polish, add some more to the story and pop it up here for you all to enjoy. Hopefully. There will be more to it. I promise.***

Regards, Jen :-)