CovetedBy: Stacey Brutger
Complete darkness crowded close.
Fresh panic came screeching back. A wisp of air brushed the back of her neck like fingertips. She hiked up her shoulders and whirled, scanning the darkness, a sudden conviction that she was not alone making her flesh crawl. With trembling fingers, she rummaged in the bag, breathing a sigh of relief when she encountered plastic.
She had no service, but her battery was fully charged. That meant she had an hour or two of light. She yanked out her florescent pink cell, and nearly wept when bright light burst in the tunnel. She spun and braced herself to find her stalker looming in the shadows.
Only to be confronted by nothing but empty space.
The tumbling walls and buckling floor should’ve made her feel better.
The age of the place pressed down on her. The light made the shadows deeper, more ominous. The oppressive air weighed heavily against her bones, a warning that bad things had happened here. Not wanting to see more of the ancient passageway, she focused on the path and trudged through the small current.
The water was going somewhere. There had to be another way out. She’d bet the trapped dog had already fled topside, having better sense than to remain underground and drown.
An interminable amount of time passed while she trekked through the tunnel, ever downward, the only sounds of running water, the squeak of rats, and her own heavy breathing. Debris floated past. When a rat sailed by on a piece of wood as its own personal sailboat, she nearly fell on her ass to scramble out of the way. The little rodent lifted his paws, chattering as if calling her stupid for standing in the water.
After that, she stopped trying to figure out what was below the surface. Call her a coward, but she was better off not knowing.
One disturbing fact became apparent five minutes later. The rainwater was rising, pushing her deeper underground.
At the squeal of a rat just around the corner, she jerked her head up, and stumbled to a halt. She stared into darkness as she waited for something to emerge, so hyped up that she’d probably bolt if even a mosquito appeared.
The small rodent screamed bloody murder, and her heart thudded in her ears.
That wasn’t anger.
That was pure terror.
Something else was in the dungeons with her.
Shayla reluctantly flicked off her light so she wouldn’t draw attention, and silently waited another minute while her eyesight adjusted.
Not wanting to forge ahead empty-handed, she cast about for some sort of weapon. She was short, ten pounds overweight. Though her brother had trained her in self-defense, she had no special kick-ass ninja moves.
Debris had caught on something a few feet behind her. She slipped the strap of her satchel over her head and backtracked toward the mini-dam. Gritting her teeth, praying she wasn’t about to lose her hand, she plunged it into the water.
And encountered wood.
Relief almost sucked the air out of her lungs. She yanked, grunting when the stubborn stick refused to budge. Her fingers felt like icicles by the time the branch finally tore free. She stumbled backwards, slamming into the wall with a grunt. Her elbow tingled, threatening to go numb, and the wood slipped from her hold. She sloshed after it, barely catching the stick before it eddied downstream. She hefted the piece, unsatisfied with the weight, but she had no time to go back and search for a sturdier weapon.
She was getting too cold.
Her feet were frozen blocks, the icy chill had seeped insidiously through her body, down into her very bones.
She needed to get out of the water.
Pushing forward, very conscious of the way her heartbeat thundered in her ears, Shayla half expected to see skeletons reach out with their bony hands and drag her into hell until she became one of them.
So when she saw a flesh and blood man standing not ten paces from her, it took her a moment to process that she was not alone. The relief was instantaneous, and she leaned weakly against the wall, locking her knees to keep from sliding into the water.
The sight of him here, of all places, dumbfounded her. She opened her mouth to call out when small details filtered into her brain.
She was staring at an honest-to-goodness dungeon.
And he was very firmly locked on the other side of those bars.
The last thing she expected to find in a supposedly haunted castle was a living, breathing man.
She stood rooted to the spot, water swirling around them in a nosy rush, and stared at him through the bars of the cage. She could scarcely make out his form as he darted back and forth, frantically plucking things out of the current like a mad scientist bent on creating some masterpiece.
His hands were scarred, nicked and dirty, streaked with dried blood that water couldn’t wash away without some soap and heavy scrubbing.
It was then she saw the rat clutched in his fist, wiggling, scratching to be free. The man hunched over, lifting the little rodent to his face.
Then his intentions became clear.
A strangled sound caught in the back of her throat.
He pivoted in her direction, the movement so incredibly fast his shape blurred.
It was a toss-up which of them was more surprised. His face emerged from the darkness, a full beard covering him like some prehistoric caveman, making him nearly indiscernible from his surroundings. He sat crouched in a creepy way that made him seem more beast than man.
Thankfully, the old bars stood reassuringly between them, keeping her from bolting into danger like a halfwit.
Pictures of missing people flashed in her mind, but he appeared to have been there long before the last two had disappeared. Indeed, his gaunt body was skin and bones, his flesh having long since melted away. His clothes hung on him, two sizes too large, indicating he’d once been a big bastard. There wasn’t an ounce of fat anywhere on him.
That wasn’t vanity.
It was starvation.
The lack of grooming was a stark contrast to the city men she dealt with stateside. His hair had clumped together and tangled around his head, while heavy shadows ringed his eyes. Any tan had long since faded, leaving him with the sallow, pale look of someone grievously ill.
Shayla slowly lowered her arm, the weight of her wooden weapon leaving her muscles trembling with fatigue. She jiggled her bag until her phone brushed her palm. Pulling it out, she flicked on the light.
The man flinched, but he didn’t look away.
The man had the most vivid eyes she’d ever seen. They would’ve been beautiful except for the fact that they stared at her unblinking, like a starved animal ready to pounce. She braced for him to charge, the hunger in him a visible thing, and she shivered to have it directed at her.
He cocked his head, clutched the rat’s squirming body to his chest with shaky fingers. Then he held out his hand as if offering her the poor creature.
She must have made some noise for he dropped the critter and launched to his feet. “You’re real?”
* * *
The woman jerked back at his sudden move, losing her hold on the phone. They both watched it plop into the water, the bright light barely penetrating the murky soup.
A second passed as they eyed each other before lunging forward at the same time.
Only by random chance did the current shove the phone toward him. The device swept by so swiftly it nearly slipped through his fingers. Despite his edge, she almost captured it first. He jerked the phone out of the water and stood with the prize clutched in his fist.
The bright pink phone appeared fragile in his rough hands. The display was lit, revealing no service. He turned it over to see elegant writing on the back, nearly indecipherable in the darkness.
What’s lost can be found. Call Shayla.
He gave a little startled jerk at her name.
From a fairy place.
“Shayla.” He whispered it softly, savoring the sound of it. The woman lifted her chin, straightening from her crouch.
“Did someone hire you to find me?” Wild emotions tumbled through him too fast to grab. Freedom was so close he could almost taste it.
“I don’t do people.” Her face scrunched adorably, but he noted she didn’t say couldn’t.
Vague plans about hiring her to find his men began forming. Her presence here couldn’t be a coincidence, but was she friend or foe?
“That’s mine. I answered your question, now give it back.” She tightened her grip on the rotten piece of driftwood, hefting it as if she would bang him over the head if he dared refuse. She looked spitting mad enough to do it, too.
Desperately needing to see her clearly, not quite convinced she wasn’t some figment of his imagination, he shone the light on her.
“Hey.” She lifted her arm to block the glare.
Dainty and next to worthless.
He should’ve been disappointed.
She should’ve repulsed him.
He scowled that she didn’t.
Fear and hope burned through him. The hair on his arms stood on end, her very presence calling to him on a visceral level that was almost mesmerizing.
It made no sense. She resembled nothing more than one of his drowned rats, but he was willing to bet she tasted better. A hunger of another sort curled through him, and he hardened in an instant.
Her blue eyes sparkled in the darkness as she peeked up at him, her gorgeous eyes growing larger as she took in his deplorable appearance. Wet clothes were plastered to her, leaving nothing to his imagination. She was a little bit of a thing, all hips and curves that had his hands flexing to explore. Her lips were full and inviting, and he found himself drawn closer as if to steal a taste. Dripping strands of hair rested around her shoulders, a curl to it that would turn wild when it dried.