October 31st, All Hallow's Day
Evil held sway on Halloween night above all others, and, in Woodcutter's Grim, anything could and did happen. Its citizens well knew of the evil presence that stopped time or even shifted to other time periods. Always, these anomalies made all watches and clocks stop, signaling that evil was in control. Here, violent storms emerged out of a clear blue sky. Night came during the hours of day, unaccounted for time passed or simply stood still for hours or days. Accidents, disappearances left behind no victim and no perpetrator--no evidence whatsoever that something foul had occurred. The people of Woodcutter's Grim learned when to lock themselves inside their homes--and not answer a knock on the door for dear life. They accepted all of these things because this was their home. They accepted the evil like a dark secret that came to life when mentioned... and everyone knew better than to speak of it. The telling of a horror could soon be the conjuring of it.
At two in the afternoon, Ransom Shaussegeny looked out the window of his laboratory--or as his family liked to call it, the "dungeon"--in his wing of the family fortress, shaking his head in disbelief at the sight that greeted him. This Halloween was even more insane than usual. A terrible blizzard wailed and pounded outside and darkness had fallen hours ago. Still, there was no moon--full or otherwise.
It'd been long held that the Shaussegeny family had allied with the evil that delighted in coming in the guise of so-called innocent fairytales. In fact, Jack Shaussegeny, Ransom's grandfather, had done the unthinkable in bringing the alliance about more than thirty years before. In an attempt to save the Shaussegeny males from the genetic disease that claimed their strength and vitality, and eventually their lives, he'd boldly called forth the evil in Woodcutter's Grim's black woods and, in doing so, brought about the multi-faceted curse that all Shaussegenys--male and female, blood-born, mates and offspring--fell under. Every full moon, they transformed into werewolves and gave in to the bloodlust that consumed them. Evil was in this place, but the Shaussegenys themselves weren't evil. "Simply victims of Grandpa Jack's arrogant ignorance," Ransom's older brother Lance liked to say.
After the curse had fallen on them, Jack had bought up all the property for miles around their family home and much of Woodcutter's Grim itself. He'd erected a fortress around their property where they could hunt under each full moon and "do no harm". Outside the forest and their own property, they weren't safe, especially not from the Protectorate--Woodcutter Grim's Guardians against the evil--but behind thick walls and the locked gate, they were protected, as was everyone else in town from them when they were transformed by the bloodlust.
Ransom alone had shunned the curse since he was five years old--when each family member experienced their first full moon. At that time, he'd resisted his transformation, his place in the pack, long before he'd invented a potion to prevent the change, and chained himself in the dungeons of the main house. As a result of his discipline, he'd been sick for most of his life, never leaving the family property, devoting himself to study and his quest to find a cure--not simply a stay against the beast waiting to break from inside each of them.
At twenty-eight, he'd devoted himself to a single focus. His family lived for the full moon while he dreaded it. They were outside now, huddling together in the white-out blizzard in order to be under the full moon, when and if it came this night. He hadn't taken the potion because he always had plenty of time once he felt the effects of the moon altering everything inside of him into werewolf form. As an additional precaution, he'd constructed a device that set off an alarm whenever the moon became more than seventy-five percent full. As soon as he felt the transformation coming over him or the alarm went off, he would chain himself to the dungeon wall and then swallow the potion which would cause horrendous agony as it counteracted the curse. Nights with a full moon were hellish. But in the morning when his parents or siblings came to release him from the chains or he was again able to manipulate the key buried beneath a nearby stone with his human fingers, he counted himself lucky regardless of how weak and listless he was for weeks afterward. His family, on the other hand, would be at peak health from their night of gluttony.
His loneliness on these nights had become almost unbearable for him since each member of his family had found their true mate and had accepted and virtually embraced the curse as well as their place in the pack. Ransom had always been on the outside by choice, but with each full moon and his failure to find a cure his solitary life became more of a burden to him.
He pulled his grandfather's journal toward him and read the final paragraph of the curse pronouncement:
"And now there is but one manner in which this multi-faceted curse I have pronounced upon you and your family, one and all, for time unending, can be broken and obliterated entirely: That beauty falls in love with the beast and vice versa, that evil loves good and good loves evil. If this should happen, your family shall be released from each aspect of my curse and your alliance with evil shall be ended."
Fairytales. In Woodcutter's Grim, evil always traced back to one fairytale or another. Ransom shook his head in frustration. What am I to believe? That a fairytale kiss will solve this whole thing and take away our curse? In other words, I need to find my true mate and fall in love with her... get her to fall in love with me. Exactly what I've spent my lifetime avoiding. I don't...I won't...allow anyone else to fall under this malediction. But, hellish irony of ironies, true love may be the only way to find a cure.
Ransom let out an aggrieved sigh, but his keen ears perked up to another sound. Someone was calling out--from upstairs, but the sound was coming nearer. He stood. Had his family come back early, conceding defeat? He couldn't imagine. He'd never known eight more stubborn people. The family's one servant who'd stayed with them even when she learned what they were--Sukey--would never leave her bedroom on a night with a full moon. They'd made sure her room was impenetrable to even a werewolf with nearly limitless strength. She kept Gavin--Lance and Heather's year-old son--with her on nights like these. While Gavin was harmless at this age--wouldn't hunt with the pack until he was five--there was no one else to keep an eye on the child during this time.
On bare, silent feet, Ransom followed the sound coming from upstairs almost until he was all but breathing down the stranger's collar. He kept himself in the shadows, out of sight. The man was in his late fifties, barely four feet in height, soaked to the bone and shivering violently. He'd obviously been out in the blizzard, but Ransom couldn't figure out how he'd gotten past the gate. He certainlydidn't come over the wall,did he?
"Hello? Is there anyone here?" the old man called again as he wandered the main floor of the house in search of occupants. "My car broke down on the road and I need to use a phone." His voice trailed off, murmuring, "If the phone lines even work in this weather."
The old man couldn't know that his family had long ago abandoned a land-line in favor of cell phones for each member.
Abruptly, the full moon alarm blared from the dungeon, and the man gasped in shock, eyes wide. Instead of running away from the sound, he ran toward it. Ransom's only concern was the moon. He could see it sliding, full and brilliant, out from cover of the pitch black veil of clouds it'd been hiding under. His cells were reacting violently. For those endless seconds after the alteration began, all he wanted in the world was to allow it to happen. But then his scientific, logical brain kicked in. On all fours, he raced down the stairs after the hapless stranger. With his remaining willpower, he barreled the old man inside one of the cells and locked the door behind him. The man huddled on the floor, his hands over his ears against the screaming alarm.
Ransom fell to his knees as excruciating pain racked his entire body. He fought the curse re-making every part of him--bones, muscles, skin and organs--and ripping him to shreds in the process. Get the potion. Now. Before it's too late.
Dragging himself along the floor with hands unnaturally long, hairy, nails like daggers, he reached up to the table, punched at a button to silence the alarm, then closed his fingers around the vial. While his fingers could still manipulate the stopper, he pulled it out and threw the liquid down his throat.
When he turned, he heard the man cry out. He still huddled in the middle of the cell, but he'd looked behind him and saw Ransom, half-transformed into a monstrous beast. His eyes and mouth were wide with cartoon-like horror. Ransom had done all he could to protect the stranger who'd come to the wrong place at the worst possible time.
He only just got his feet and hands chained to the wall when the potion's counteractive effects slammed through him. But instead of preventing his transformation, it seemed to aid it tonight--all bets were off on Halloween in Woodcutter's Grim. For the first time since he'd developed the formula, he became a full werewolf and the rending agony was almost more than he could bear coupled with the potion. The stranger screamed with him with every howl and roar of pain. If not for the manacles, Ransom would have collapsed against the torment. Shuddering with each fresh wave of torture and the unbearable need to kill, to consume blood and raw meat, he wished for death. He could imagine the old man wished for the same, but Ransom couldn't explain what he truly was, nor did he need to. He was a monster and there was no escape.
* * * *
Only when the morning light released him did Ransom's agonized screams end, and he collapsed in exhaustion against the chains. He woke later--still too early for his family to return from their celebration. With human fingers, he pried the loose stone up and retrieved the key to release himself from the manacles. When he'd replaced the key, he saw that the stranger was asleep on the floor of the cell. He'd endured much because of Ransom's beast.
Feeling deeply ashamed, though there'd been nothing else he could have done, Ransom unlocked the cell silently. He padded up the stairs and threw food into a paper sack. He returned to the cell and left it there for the man to find when he awoke and hopefully fled as fast as he could. In the meantime, Ransom opened the property gate to allow him passage, all the while wondering how the man had gotten in in the first place. He would have to talk to his family about it. They couldn't have strangers drifting in and out of their property on a whim--especially on Halloween and full moon nights.
Hiding in a dark space of the dungeon, Ransom saw the man awaken, saw the look of uncertain terror on his face that relaxed only once he saw the empty manacles and his cell door unlocked and wide open, a bag of food next to him on the floor. He rose quickly with the food and rushed out of the cell and up the stairs, muttering, "Maybe..."
Ransom followed behind, never too close, but he never expected the old man to do anything but make a beeline for the door. What was he looking for? Instead of fleeing while he could, he went around the house again, calling out tentatively, almost as if he didn't want anyone to answer him. What kind of an idiot doesn't make a break immediately when it's offered? Certainly after last night, he should have learned something of this place.
Ransom trailed him into his grandmother's greenhouse just beyond the kitchen, frowning when the man gasped in pleasure and made for the enchanted rose bush which glittered like the stars of heaven had kissed each perfect velvet red petal. "What..." the man started in delight, setting down the bag of food. "So beautiful. Tess will be over the moon. Surely just one wouldn't be stealing."
With that, before Ransom could stop him, he picked up the garden shears on a nearby table and clipped off a rose. He cried out immediately when a thorn pricked him. Instantly, the bush it'd come from withered and died. Ransom couldn't prevent himself from moving out of the shadows. "You've killed it. You've destroyed my grandmother's pride and joy. She alone could cultivate something so unique and magical. And you've destroyed all her hard work."
The man cried out at his unexpected appearance but also cast a guilty look at the damage he'd caused with his theft. "I'm sorry. I had no idea this would happen. I got lost in the blizzard last night. My daughter's waiting at home for me, and when I asked her if she wanted me to bring her anything back from my business trip, she requested only a single red rose. I saw the greenhouse from the front porch last night, and I couldn't resist coming here this morning. I didn't expect the entire bush to die because I cut one rose from it."
"How did you get past the gate?" Ransom asked. "It's always locked."
The intruder shook his head, eyes bewildered. "It wasn't locked."
But it was always locked. Had someone forgotten, been careless? Ransom wasn't sure what to think. Yet he'd read possibly more than his fair share of fairytales in his lifetime. Because of his ill health, he'd been schooled from home and read everything he could. Something about this scenario reminded him of a fairytale. Beauty and the Beast. This was meant to happen. The gate had been opened, possibly not by human hands. And these roses, the enchanted ones Granddad found by the portal in the woods, the roses that are a part of Woodcutter's Grim and will always lead back to this place, figure into the curse somehow.
"Your daughter? You spoke of a daughter," Ransom said, his voice hard.
"Yes," the man said, trembling, his thumb still bleeding where the thorn had imbedded itself deeply into flesh. "Tess. She attends college, majors in horticulture science, but stays home because she doesn't want me to be all alone. She's the only beauty in this tired old life."
Beauty... He straightened and the act made the man cringe back so Ransom towered over him menacingly. "You've destroyed my grandmother's prized rose bush for a single rose."
"Please, I never meant--"
"You must see these roses are enchanted. Surely I can't let you walk out of here with that rose after you destroyed the entire bush."
"But I have nothing to give you to make restitution. I came here on business. I was passing through this town on my way to save my family business. But I'm afraid I failed. I have nothing to give you. All I have left now is my daughter..."
Ransom knew what was to happen next, as if he'd read it from a script. "Then you must send her here immediately. She must stay with me for the rest of the year. Only then will I allow her to leave. At that time, your crime will be forgiven you."
The man gaped at him. "Stay here? She can't stay here! There are monsters in this place. I saw one myself last night. I can't--"
"Either you send your daughter here for the remainder of the year, or you will be my prisoner for all time. I promise you, your daughter will come to no harm. Not a hair on her head will be damaged. If you don't agree, she'll never know what became of you, old man."
"But...if she stays here--"
"You don't have a choice. She'll return to you at the New Year. Don't think you can trick me either. If you don't send her, you'll both become my prisoners."
"What can I do or say to change your mind?"
"Say 'Yes'. You'll send your daughter."
The man looked down at the rose, obviously regretting his theft now more than anything else he'd ever regretted before, however considerable. "I have no choice then. Very well. I'll send Tess as soon as I can. But how can I be sure she'll be able to find her way here?"
Ransom nodded at the glittering flower in the man's hand. "The rose. These roses pierce whoever touches them and that person is forever afterward drawn to this place. Take it with you. It will lead your daughter back here without fail. It will also lead me to you if you break your promise. You can't get rid of this rose. It's magical, and one of the thorns is now inside you."
"But what is this place? Who are you?"
Ransom shook his head. "Go now and have your daughter return here as soon as possible with the rose. It's your only hope." He paused and offered softly, "By the way, my name is Ransom."
Obviously realizing his predicament, the man's good sense finally kicked in and he rushed from the house. Ransom followed slowly behind, feeling the weight of what he'd done in carrying out the fairytale that'd presented itself to him. Whether he liked it or not, this was meant to happen. He felt a sense of fate to the core of his being. He couldn't fight what was already in motion. But I have to find a cure for the curse. More than ever, I know this. But I can't do that with a fairytale. I can only do it with science. Soon. I can't lose hope.
Beyond that her palm ached strangely from the thorn that had embedded itself as soon as she held the rose her father brought to her, Tess Moore couldn't explain how she knew she was rapidly approaching her destination. Her father had begged her not to come here, and she shuddered at the memory of his wrath. He'd warned her of what she was to face...
Tess shook her head with stubborn determination. Someone had to talk this hard man into reason. Surely, he'd forgive her father for what he'd done because of her simple, ignorant request. Somehow, she'd make restitution, and truthfully, how hard could it be? She only needed to stay in this place for a couple months. They'd probably put her to work. No big deal. Her father knew basically where she was. If she didn't return on January first, he'd send help.
But deep down, Tess knew the real reason she'd come here. Commonsense--after what her father had told her about this place--should have made her reluctant, but the rose... She'd never seen anything like it. It was the most beautiful flower she'd ever seen. Though it'd been four days since her father had cut it from the bush, it was as fresh and beautiful as the day he'd presented it to her. The heavenly scent grew more potent each day. But as a horticulture science major, she had a special interest in this particular rose. It was supernatural. Nothing could make her believe otherwise. She'd attempted to experiment with it. Beyond the thorn it'd given up when she touched it the first time, it wouldn't allow her to tamper with it in any way. She couldn't be surprised at the fury the man had shown against her father when he'd withered the bush by taking the rose. She had to find out what this thing was and where it'd come from. The rest of what her father had told her about this place had to be Halloween spookiness. Didn't it? Nothing else was believable.
Her mind filled with the image she'd been seeing in her dreams since she touched the rose. A tall, pale, beautiful man cast in shadows, cloaked, his wide shoulders slumped as if the weight of the world was on them. This man was tormented, and she couldn't help her desire to come to his aid. Could this be the man her father had told her about? She could hardly believe she would feel such a draw to someone who'd terrified her father to the core of his being.
The forest around her as she drove on the unpaved road abruptly opened up and she saw the beginning of a vast wall ahead. She knew she was close and she found herself holding her breath for a moment as she followed the wall until it came to a massive gate with the letter "S" on it. The gate parted as soon as she drove up to it. Swallowing her uncertainty, she drove through and quickly looked up into her rearview mirror to see it close behind her. She'd come here of her own free will and she wouldn't be allowed to leave before the beginning of the next year. What had she gotten herself into? The trepidation she felt should have held fear but the most she could claim was nervous excitement. She'd spent a lifetime waiting for something like this to happen to her. I've been on the outside, watching, waiting for a glimpse of this. And now I'm here.
As she took the right path and drove toward the buildings ahead peeking through thick trees, she saw in surprise a group of people standing on the considerable stone porch. The house itself was more like a castle than a standard, modern-day home. Four corbelled turrets rose from each corner and a single tower rose up into the sky above them. The stone walls looked thick and ancient. While there was no drawbridge or portcullis entry, there were modernized battlements and low walls running along the length of each side in parapets.
Tess parked, forcing herself to get out with the rose in her hand and stretch, acting natural about something that was anything but. Slowly, she ambled over to the four steps up to the wide stone porch. The younger of the two women there moved to meet her. She had long, red hair. Her belly was slightly expanded, making it obvious she was pregnant, though not nearly as far along as the blond woman with a baby who was about a year old in her arms.
"Tess?" the red-head asked.
The woman smiled. "We've been expecting you. We're the Shaussegenys. I'm Ransom's sister Glynnis. This is my husband Aric."
Ransom is the man my father met. He didn't mention anyone else but the grandmother, who cultivated the rose bush. Tess climbed the steps to them, fighting an odd feeling that she'd seen all of them somewhere before. Glynnis embraced her as if they were old friends, adding to the strangeness of the meeting. Aric also hugged her.
"Lance, Ransom's older brother," Glynnis continued the introductions. "His wife Heather and their child Gavin."
After many hugs that should have been better thought of considering the circumstances, Glynnis introduced her parents, Gav and Marnie, and grandparents, Jack and Catherina.
Tess frowned then. Where'sthe man Ransom? When she asked tentatively, Glynnis put an arm around her, leading her toward the open front doors. "You'll meet him at dinner. Come on. Let the men get your luggage, and we'll show you your room."
Finding herself smiling eagerly, Tess walked alongside the women until the baby boy held his arms out to her. "Be careful," Heather warned. "He likes to bite."
Glynnis raised a lewd eyebrow. "Like all Shaussegeny men, he's fascinated by breasts."
Tess laughed out loud and eagerly took the little boy. He was so dark, his body hair thicker than she'd ever seen on a baby. But he was the most beautiful child she'd ever seen. His eyes and skin glowed with health and joy. Just as the women had predicted, he nuzzled her breasts immediately but his mother thrust her hand over his mouth when his shockingly sharp teeth tried to snap at her. "You can't possibly be hungry, sweetie."
Gav sighed when his mother took her fingers from his lips, laying his cheek against Tess' shoulder. She smiled down at him, holding him close. "Is he still nursing?" she asked.
"When are the two of you due?"
Heather and Glynnis gave due dates about three months apart in the following year. They continued through the house, and Tess took in the sights with awe. She'd never been inside a castle before, and this one had every possible luxury and convenience along with traditional stone arches and staircases and hand-forged torches and light fixtures. They moved past the great hall of the house opened to both the dining and living rooms and down impossibly long halls.
"There are four wings in the house, one at each corner, all with full apartments," Glynnis told her by way of explanation. "Aric and I have the east wing, Lance and Heather the west, Grandmother and Grandfather in the south, and Ransom in the north. Mother and Father are in the tower suite. The guest bedrooms are here on the main floor--the safest area, we think. Sukey's room was back there, closer to the living room. You should find this one suitable, though it's been a long time since we've had guests."
"Sukey? Safe?" Tess murmured in surprise.
"Sukey is our housekeeper. She lives here with us. She's more than a housekeeper actually. She takes care of our horses and the grounds as well. We couldn't do without her."
Glynnis led the way into a luxurious room that couldn't be described as a simple bedroom. It was almost as big as the great hall with a sitting section, and the bed, closet and dressing space. An apartment suite, Glynnis had called the rooms in the house and so this one was. "I've never seen anything like this," she murmured. "It's so elegant."
"Bathroom," Glynnis said, pushing the door in.
"Why don't we let you freshen up after your trip," Catherina said, patting her cheek.
Marnie scooped up the baby. "Dinner is at six-thirty. Please feel free to come down whenever you're comfortable."
Lance entered the room with the luggage from the car.
"Thank you," Tess offered.
Smiling, they left the room and Glynnis closed the door behind them.
Still holding the rose, Tess walked around the whole room and into the bathroom and closet. Instead of unpacking, she thrust the suitcase onto the floor of the closet and closed the door. She didn't really need to do more than basic freshening up. Not when she was this eager. She could hardly wait to get back downstairs and ask Ransom's grandmother--the woman her father had spoken of as the owner of the prized roses--about the enchanted rose. Though she knew it didn't need watering, she slipped the rose into the massive vase of flowers on a table in the room. None of those flowers stood out the way the rose did. They paled in comparison--literally, there was a glow about the rose that was supernatural.
Finding her way back to the great hall was no easy feat. The house was immense, the ceilings amazingly high, but there was so much to look at she didn't mind being lost. She couldn't get enough of it. The sun streamed through oriel windows that were more like artistic pieces symmetrically laid out along the upstairs halls overlooking the great room. Each window had a locked gate outside of it.
She came out in a different place than she'd gone in and saw she was in the kitchen. Pots and pans boiled and sizzled on the stove and the scent of dinner cooking made her stomach growl hungrily. When she stepped out of the door just off the kitchen, she found herself looking into the greenhouse her father had told her the rose bush was in. She rushed to the center, hoping to see at least some part of it, even if it had withered.
As Tess came around the corner a little too fast for her to be natural about her intentions, Catherina turned to her. Tess' gaze followed the older woman's to the dried, faded remnants of the rose bush. Despite the fact that it was obviously dead, there was a shimmer around the bush--as if it still retained its former magic.
"Where did it come from?" Tess asked in a hushed voice when she, too, stood before the lost treasure.
"Many years ago, my husband found a single rose in our woods. When I transplanted it, I was able to propagate this bush. It's flourished all this time."
Tess swallowed the horror in her throat when she thought of all the work this woman had gone to to bring about a bush from the magnificent rose. And, in one cutting, the bush had been destroyed, proving that it was indeed supernatural since most bushes thrived with pruning. "I'm so sorry, Catherina. I'm the green thumb in the family. My father had no idea that would happen. I admit, I wouldn't have expected it either."
"I can't explain what happened," Catherina said, looking bewildered. "But I've cut roses from this bush before. The thorns pierce me, but the bush never fades. New roses always grow right up in the place of the ones I've cut--within days. Perhaps it's who cut it that explains why this happened."
"You're saying only you or someone in your family can cut from the bush?"
"Does that seem so strange to you, my dear? There's nothing natural about these roses. The cut rose pierced you, didn't it? It brought you here whether or not you wanted to come."
"But I wanted to come."
Catherina nodded, obviously expecting her answer. "Because of your fascination with the rose. Ransom said you were a horticulture science major in college."
Tess nodded vaguely. "I had to know what the rose was. How something like it can even exist. Where it came from."
"This town is unlike any other, Tess. There are dangers here, and you need to be careful. At night, you must lock yourself in your room and not come out for any reason or for anyone--not any of us. No matter what you hear, you must stay locked inside until morning. And you must never walk in the woods alone, nor stray off the path, especially at night."
"But...what is this place? Where did you find the rose?"
Catherina turned to her. "The portal, Tess. That's where my husband found this rose--near the portal in our woods. It's the portal that evil uses to enter Woodcutter's Grim and this rose came from that place on the other side of the portal, where evil lives. Be very, very careful while you're with us. We're touched by evil even if we ourselves are good."
* * * *
How can you know a person you've never met? Yet that was exactly what Ransom experienced when he saw Tess for the first time. Everything about her was familiar--from her shoulder-length, silken black hair to her haunting dark eyes. She was small yet shapely in casual clothing that she'd obviously worn for travel. A few wrinkles couldn't change the fact that he knew her beautiful face intimately and he'd forever longed to touch her golden skin. I've dreamed of her. For as long as I can remember, she's haunted my dreams and dogged my steps. I know her as surely as I know myself. Because we're part of each other. We're one.
Ransom understood that she was his chosen mate and that was why he'd felt compelled to bring her here, damn the consequences. Lance had told him of this--this obsession that eclipsed right and wrong, good and evil. His brother had fought for years not to drag Heather into the family curse. But, in the end, he'd had no choice. She had no choice. And only together at last had they both found the peace that had alluded them all their lives apart.
I don't want to hurt Tess. More than anything else in the world, I don't want her to get hurt by any of this. But do I have any options here? Can I walk away or allow her walk away? If we don't, are our fates sealed?
"Can we replant the rose bush?" Ransom heard Tess ask his grandmother from where he stood in the shadows of the greenhouse. The two stood side by side before the withered bush. "I brought the enchanted rose and it's still perfect..."
"No," Grandmother Catherina said definitively. "The rose and the bush have served their purpose. Now all that's left is for the end to be fulfilled."
Tess looked at the older woman, obviously confused by her words and unsure of their meaning.
"I'll check on dinner," his grandmother murmured. She looked pointedly at Ransom before she left the greenhouse. Her smile was omniscient.
Ransom moved further into the glass building connected with the back of the house. Tess had reached out to the bush but pulled back when she saw him appear. For a long moment, she looked at him with wide eyes, and Ransom could almost read her thoughts. She was drawn to him just as inexplicably, just as instinctively, as he was to her. Had she dreamed of him as well? Had the darkness of this place sought her, found her, filled her with an omniscient sense of him and his pain?
"You're Ransom," she said softly when he stood before her. She looked up at him in wonder. "You're the man my father met here."
By all rights, she should have hated and feared him, if her father had told her anything at all of this place. Yet she seemed awe-struck as she gazed at him.
"Did you come of your own free will, Tess?" he asked.
"I didn't believe your father would send you. He was adamant about protecting you. He said you were most his precious possession."
"I don't want to talk about my father," she said abruptly.
When she turned back to the bush, Ransom could only stare at her in surprise. He couldn't be certain, but something about the way she spoke of her father made him believe she was afraid. Of the man himself? Or of his experience here?
"He told me everything about his time here, Ransom. But I had to come."
"Why?" he managed, unable to believe her father could have truly told her everything if she'd still decided to come. What could have possibly been the draw for her?
"I love plants. Flowers. Beautiful things that are alive and it seems impossible that they should be--trees and vegetables. Roses. These things are as alive as you and I. But the rose... That's something different. I've never before seen anything like the rose my father brought me. I had to find out more about it. I have to know everything."
"It's supernatural. Do you believe that, Tess?"
"I have to, don't I? It's unique in a way that can't be disputed."
She was so willing to believe in the supernatural. Even in Ransom's limited experience, he knew people outside of Woodcutter's Grim were not only reluctant but dead-set against believing in anything supernatural. Magic didn't exist outside these borders. Yet Tess accepted it easily--almost too easily.
She turned to him again. "Who are you, Ransom? You're not at all what I expected."
"What did you expect? A monster?" "He told me everything about his experience here..."
"Tell me who you are," she requested in a voice filled with the kind of compassion Ransom had never anticipated from her. If her father had told her anything, she must have some comprehension that she should be terrified of this place and the people in it.
"I've never left my family's property," he told her. "I've been here all my life. I've never even been to town. I walk in the woods every day within our walls. I've earned several educational degrees, all from this place. I've never known anyone outside of my own family--their spouses and children. I've never had a friend or companion who wasn't a relative or employee."
Did her eyes seem to glisten with his words? Sympathy filled her face as she held his gaze.
"I've been sick. All my life."
"What do you have?"
"It's... Well, it's something my entire family is infected with. But the...disease...manifests itself differently in me."
"I've never seen people who looked more healthy in my life," she said, obviously astonished.
She didn't say the words, but he could tell she saw the opposite in him. And she was wondering about it.
"I know." Ransom shook his head, lifting it and looking away from her out of necessity. He had to remind himself they were strangers. "I'm sorry I asked you to come here--asked your father to send you, Tess. Maybe it was selfish of me. Wrong. But...I've longed for companionship. I went about getting it the wrong way."
"Do you still want me to stay until the end of the year?"
He glanced at her, alarmed because she didn't sound like she was trying to get out of anything. Her tone said she wanted to stay--and wanted reassurance that he desired the same.
"More than anything, I want you to stay, Tess. But it was wrong of me to ask for it. This is a dangerous place. Perhaps the most dangerous place in the world..."
Surprising him still further, she reached out and put her hand on his arm. His entire body came to life in a way he didn't recognize yet couldn't deny. Never before had he longed to touch and be touched the way he did with this compassionate, beautiful woman. "Your grandmother has already warned me about what I can expect. I understand. I'll be careful."
Ransom swallowed the panic filling his throat when he remembered what had happened when her father came here. He could have killed him. I could kill Tess if I'm
not careful. Especially when the full moon comes. "Promise me you'll heed the warnings."
"Everyone here has been so nice..."
"You said your father told you everything about his stay. He must have told you of the danger."
She looked away, her hand drifting from his arm and leaving him cold. Something in her profile spoke of being disturbed. "Yes. Father told me everything. He didn't want me to come here. I'm all he has, you see. And he said this place... He said if I came here, I'd lose everything. He didn't want to let me come... But he couldn't stop me. As soon as he turned his back, I came."
She shuddered, her gaze so far away, veiled in the dark shadows of her memories. Maybe she didn't believe in the supernatural after all--if her father told her everything, told her of the monster, and she'd come anyway. She obviously hadn't believed him. But Ransom sensed her feelings were much more than that. She was afraid--not of this place but of her father. How could that be right?
Ransom didn't believe in fairytales--not the kind in which a kiss, true love's kiss, could undo all the damage and save everyone. He didn't believe someone with a heart as big as Tess' could fall in love with... A monster. That's what I am. She'll never know who and what I really am. I can't allow her to see me that way. I have to trust in science. The new formula I've created has to be the one. It's shown more promise than anything else has before. Under the full moon at the end of this month, I'll inject it and, if it works, everything will change. Tess and I will be free to fall in love without the curse hanging over us. Love will be natural, not magical, not tainted. If we choose to be together, it won't be because we have no other options. Because we're compelled by evil and evil's malediction. But can Tess love me for who I truly am? Do I dare hope for such a miracle?
* * * *
The dinner bell rang, and Tess looked up at Ransom Shaussegeny expectantly. She hadn't expected him to be this kind, unselfish. This good-looking. She didn't expect to have to reconcile everything her father had told her about this place and these people with the reality she saw before her. It was as if she'd been made for this place and its people. Though Ransom did look ill--his skin was pale, not dark and glowing with vitality like the rest of his family--there was something about him. Something that made her trust him immediately. She felt sympathy but not pity for him. How could she fear anything here as her father had told her she should and must? Ransom least of all could she fear. He was nothing like the men she'd known in the past. Her heart wanted to reach out to him the moment she'd seen his tall, contradictory strong yet frail figure approach her. His eyes--at first glance, a haunting obsidian--were in actuality a beautiful midnight blue, like velvet in a summer night's sky.
When Ransom offered her his arm, she took it without conscious thought, to allow him to lead her to the dining room. She noticed then that he wore nice slacks and a burgundy sweater. "I didn't bring anything fancy to wear. Does your family always dress for dinner?"
"We do. It's a strange tradition we've always had. But my grandmother makes clothes for everyone in the family. I'm sure she can provide you with something suitable if you feel uncomfortable."
"Of course. You'll be staying with us. We'll provide whatever you need during this time."
Tess couldn't help smiling as she looked up at his profile. She couldn't see him as gaunt, though he was. Like the rest of the men in his family, he was impossibly handsome--his face more like a sculpture in its beauty than anything else. His lips looked hard and firm and yet equally warm and soft. What must it be like to kiss a sculpture? Would he be cold? Unyielding like stone?
When Ransom glanced at her, she could almost believe he was reading her wayward thoughts and she blushed. Even as she felt shy about emotions she'd never expected to have, she knew there was no way she would change her mind and try to leave here before the year was up. She wanted to stay, wanted to get to know Ransom and his family. She wanted to learn the secret of the rose. I believe I can. Somehow, I think I already know the truth, but I just can't...recall it. I can't find it. Like her dark dreams of late, something was out of reach, something hidden in dark shadows that she couldn't see.
When she closed her eyes that night, anticipating the most pleasant of dreams following dinner and an evening of bliss, she found herself walking in the woods, happier than she'd ever been in her life with Ransom at her side. "This is the portal where my grandfather found the enchanted rose..." he told her.
"Evil uses the portal to enter Woodcutter's Grim and this rose came from that place on the other side of the portal, where evil lives."
Terror gripped her. This place was sinister. Evil wasn't far from her, from this family. No, she wouldn't stay here! Even to see the origin of the rose, she couldn't stay!
In the darkness, she ran, feeling something behind her, giving chase. When she turned around, gasping, she glimpsed something dark, cloaked. Beneath the hood was an evil face. Yellowed fangs dripped with crimson blood that she could smell. Her stomach turned. The monster her father had told her about? The head lifted and red eyes stared out at her. "Don't run from me, Beauty..."
But she did. She ran straight into the sunlight, and, when she burst out into the clearing, where the day shone all around her, she flew from the nightmare with a cry. Shaking as she sat up in bed, she realized she'd been dreaming. A silly dream.
She settled back against her pillow once more, closed her eyes and filled her mind with the image of Ransom looking down at her, his eyes like blue velvet, his voice soft and comforting. Arousing. When I'm with him, I'm alive in a way I've never been before. This place can't be dangerous. It can't be.... but it is enchanted.