Coveted

By: Stacey Brutger


Scotland was everything her grandfather had said and more. The mystical places he’d described so vividly lay stretched out before her.

She’d just arrived a few centuries too late to witness the magic firsthand.

But her family had behaved as if they’d never see her again. The only reason they’d relented and she wasn’t physically locked in their basement was because James had offered to accompany her.

She and James had dated for three weeks before realizing they were better friends than lovers. He’d stepped up and promised to keep her out of trouble. Her mother readily agreed, as if spending time alone together would change them back into a couple.

James took his job seriously, delivering her to the inn with a minimum of fuss. He got her settled, unobtrusively checking out her room, even peeking under the bed. It had taken her the whole plane ride to convince him he couldn’t miss his medical conference in London just to sit around babysitting her.

But the magic of Scotland was tarnished by the troubles that followed her around like a shadow she couldn’t shake.

It was time to finish this nonsense.

No more running from her problems.

The first step would be to purchase essential supplies for the week, finish the job quickly, and not allow her stalker to get the upper hand. She’d deal with him, then she’d figure out a way to avoid the bleak future stretched out before her if she was forced to give up the job she loved. The wind kicked up, penetrating her clothes, and she shivered. She shoved her camera back in her satchel, but when she turned to head back toward the quaint little inn her prospective boss had rented for the week, there was no sign of civilization, only a huge-ass dog sitting amongst the heather.

Watching.

Waiting.

Shayla bit her lip, debating her choices. She tried to glance around without actually losing sight of the dog.

No owner.

And certainly no tree close enough that she’d be able to climb and get away from those super-large, saber-toothed type teeth he flashed about if he decided to give chase.

Then a big tongue lolled out, giving her a doofus grin as if to say ‘See? I’m Harmless’. She wasn’t convinced, but she remembered spotting him sneaking around at the inn. There was no road behind him, no discernible path. She must have meandered off course. She glanced at her watch and cursed to see that hours had passed.

Shayla didn’t panic. She was never lost. All she had to do was focus on her destination, and she would find her way there.

Eventually.

It was part of her gift that came to her like second nature.

But she didn’t care for the look of the black thunderclouds rolling in over the sea. The sky had darkened threateningly, the storm clouds boiling up from out of nowhere. The dog barked then paced back the way they’d come.

As though offering to lead her home.

Only one problem.

She’d never make it back before the storm struck.

She glanced toward the castle, the only visible shelter, and a spurt of unfamiliar indecision made her waver.

She could deal with a haunted castle. No, it was the words of caution from the innkeeper about wandering off that gave her pause, that and the half dozen posters of missing people she’d noticed in the short time since she’d arrived.

Then she shook off the morbid thoughts. She wouldn’t melt in the rain. She turned her back on the castle to see the dog patiently waiting to guide her back to safety.

“Okay, you win. Good guard dog.” Shayla had taken two steps when electricity sparked in the air, like a bolt of lightning preparing a strike. She increased her stride when a heart-wrenching howl split the air. The lonely sound held such despair that she stopped short. She spun around searching for the source.

Her eyes latched on the castle. The poor animal must be trapped.

Thunder rumbled, and the earth trembled under her feet with its ferocity. “Damn it!”

She couldn’t leave the dog stranded.

A night in a haunted castle was every tourist’s fantasy. She could brave a night in an abandoned castle with the spooks and spiders. It would be the kind of adventure her grandfather had always encouraged her to embrace. So why did she tense with the compulsion to flee while she had the chance?

Ignoring the heebie-jeebies crawling along her skin, Shayla pushed toward the ruined walls, wincing as she plodded through the beautiful flowers like some heathen.

Another boom shook the ground, and the sky opened up, jolting her into a run. By the time she reached the outer wall, she was soaked.

The rain was surprisingly warm. She cocked her head, listening for any sign of the dog who’d howled so plaintively, but she couldn’t hear squat over the storm. “Here doggie.”

Feeling foolish, she hunched over and made kissy sounds, searching the area for any traces of the missing hound. And not getting very far. She could barely see two feet in front of her in the downpour. Her foot slipped. Mud sucked at her shoes. She staggered to catch her balance as the ground beneath her feet shifted, and the earth began to slowly crumble.

“Shit.” Shayla threw herself sideways. But the ground had a mind of its own, slurping her down like a hungry beast, and she could’ve smacked herself for putting the image of being eaten alive into her brain. Her hands slid over the rain-slicked earth, mud squishing through her fingers as she scrambled for purchase.

By the time she was hip deep, there was no escape. She kicked her legs, frantic to reach something solid. There was only empty space below her.

Relief was instantaneous.

The fear of being buried alive lessened. That one second of inattention was all it took. The ground beneath her arms dissolved, sucking her under, and she fell into emptiness for what felt like an eternity.

She flailed like a ninny before her brother’s training took over. She crossed her arms over her chest, tucked her chin down, and bent her legs.

She landed with a jarring thud and rolled. She came to a stop flat on her back, her satchel crunched beneath her, while the pounding rain did its best to drown her. Clawing away from the downpour, she dragged herself out of the small river of mud and water.

Then she encountered stone.

Man-made blocks.

Fear of the unknown diminished.

She was in the basement of the castle. The random thought nearly sent her into a fit of giggles. As soon as her fingers touched the wall, Shayla climbed to her feet and leaned against it, relief weakening her knees.

Hell, she didn’t need a stalker to kill her, she could manage that all by herself. She pressed her face against the cool stone when her actual location hit her.

Castles didn’t have basements.

They had dungeons.

Dread crept down her spine, and Shayla shivered, eyeing the shadows suspiciously.

A bark echoed around her, and she whipped around to see the dog from the inn loom over the gaping hole ten feet above her head.

There would be no going back out that way.

The dog paced, then crouched as if preparing to jump after her.

She waved her hands in a shooing motion. “Hey, Lassie, go get help.”

The furry face froze in his frantic search, eyes locked on hers…almost as if he understood, which was ridiculous…then he yipped and darted off. Shayla sighed, already missing the pooch, the passageway seeming colder and so much creepier without his company.

As she looked at possible escape routes, she saw roots had tunneled through the ceiling over the years, enough to weaken the structure. The rain had loosened the ground, and her weight had done the rest.

The rules her brother had pounded into her rang in her ear. After each confrontation, assess any injures. Shayla moved each limb, probed her ribs, searching for any wounds. Besides bruises and a few scrapes, she was fine.

She wondered if the animal she’d heard howling had fallen into the same trap. He still could be there. If she found him, they could use his nose and escape together.

She felt better with a plan of action. Using her hands, she followed along the wall, shuddering when her fingers slid through slime so thick it reminded her of slugs, all smooshed and lumpy. Her gag reflex kicked into overdrive, and she scrubbed her fingers on her pants. She stumbled two more feet when she came to a halt.

The passageway was blocked by thousands of pounds of rubble.

No way out.

Heart pumping a little too fast, Shayla quickly ran through her options. She could wait for rescue, but no one knew where she’d gone. They’d just assume she was another in a long list of missing people. Worse, she was a foreigner. Even if Lassie managed to get back to town, what could he do?

She could wait for the rain to stop and use the rubble to build a ladder, but she feared tampering with the pile of rocks might bring down more of the ceiling. The terror of being buried alive shivered through her again. If she stayed, she’d be a babbling idiot before midnight.

If she survived that long.

With her luck, she’d slip, hit her head and drown long before morning.

That left her only one possibility.

Going further into the bowels of the castle.

Taking her courage in hand, she charged through the steady downpour. The now frigid water nearly knocked her to the floor, the impact stealing the air from her lungs. She sputtered, ducking her head as she ran, the three-inch-deep water doing its best to sweep her off her feet. Her shoulder slammed into the wall, scraping off a patch of skin, and she struggled to regain her balance.

As soon as she turned the corner, the roar of the deluge faded. Water tugged on her as it swirled past. She leaned against the wall, her chest heaving as she greedily sucked in the thick, earth-damp air. Her heart slammed so hard against her ribcage it felt like something was in her chest and wanted out.

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