Escape to Calais County.
A secret society’s risque ritual offers Maggie Brandeis an escape from dire straits. To start a new life, all she has to do is give herself to an Argentum member for four nights of steamy, passionate rites.
Meg Silver’s Calais County series centers on a sexual lottery: one event, multiple couples, each with their own unique chemistry and experience.
Things like this didn’t happen to people like Maggie Brandeis. No one with her lowly background ever encountered secret societies, let alone received an invitation to join one.
Then again, the Argentum didn’t much resemble Maggie’s idea of a centuries-old secret society. Nobody skulked around in robes, chanting. Everyone she had seen so far was dressed to the nines for this sexual lottery ritual.
Maggie looked at herself in the mirror. She definitely had the wardrobe down. The dress she wore had cost her sponsor more money than Maggie had seen in the last year. Its cornflower-blue silk draped provocatively in front. A gold ring held the back together. Her dark hair was clipped into a loose up-do. The hours she had spent on the beach since the funeral showed in tanned skin still tinged red with sun. She wore almost no makeup, only some bronzer, mascara and a coral lip gloss.
Definitely not her usual getup. In everyday life, she favored jeans and t-shirts. Until three months ago, she’d had no job, no prospects, no hope. Now she stood to gain so much, the thought of it all still left her stunned.
She owed everything to the woman standing behind her, tucking stray strands of Maggie’s hair into place. Gwen Jennings was in her mid-forties. One of the richest women in the state, she normally she wore uptight business suits but tonight she wore a chocolate-brown cocktail dress that made a lovely contrast to her graying hair and warm, golden skin.
“Luck has nothing to do with it,” Gwen said. “You made my mother very happy at the end. Sponsoring you for Argentum membership is the least I can do.”
Maggie gave Gwen an affectionate, if wry, look via the mirror. “Right, because the part where you took me in, trusted me to look after your mother, and then solved all my problems doesn’t count.”
“I haven’t solved anything. Not yet.”
Maggie didn’t respond. Gwen always downplayed her part in rescuing Maggie from a hopeless state. To Gwen, who had lived in Calais County her entire life, all of this secret-society business was old hat. For her, the Argentum was a formal family built on professional connections. They’d been around forever, and prided themselves on rituals and you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours fidelity.
“Besides,” Gwen said. “It’s not as if there are no strings attached to my offer. This ceremony does require you to give yourself to a stranger for the next four days.”
True enough. The Sortition, the ritual Maggie was about to take part in, would cast her name into a lottery. If her name was drawn by an Argentum member, she would spend the next four nights with that person, performing what Gwen had called Rites.
There was a mandatory ceremony they had to attend on the last night. There were a whole boat-load of other rules they had to follow along the way, and there had been an ocean-liner’s worth of hoops Maggie had been forced through to make it this far. The medical and psychological testing had been thorough, to say the least. Borderline insulting, really, but she refused to let Gwen down.
Maggie had everything to gain. If she and her Argentum partner made it through all four days of Sortition, Gwen would set her up with a storefront and warehouse, a three-bedroom apartment rent-free for one year, and a quarter-million dollars in startup funds.
“Don’t be nervous,” Gwen said. “And try to remember, this ritual has been going on in Calais County since it was founded, and even longer than that back in the old country. It might not mean as much to you as it means to full members, but one day, you’ll understand. Sortition isn’t just an excuse for four days of debauchery. Completing all four Rites, no matter what, means you can be trusted to honor your commitments at home, in business and society.”
Maggie looked at Gwen in the mirror, and nodded. “You keep talking like this is a done deal. What if my name doesn’t get drawn?”
“Have faith, Maggie. You belong here in Calais County, and in the Argentum. My mother believed it, and so do I.”
Maggie wanted to believe. Success meant a fresh start and a chance to help others she cared about, whose lives had disintegrated the same way hers had when they’d all been laid off.
Watching her sponsor’s assured smile in the mirror, Maggie felt a prickle of grateful tears sting her eyes.
“Don’t you dare cry again,” Gwen scolded. “This is serious business. You will have to please the man who draws your name, no matter what. I doubt tears are the first impression you hope to give.”
Right. No pressure. She’d had sex a grand total of twelve times in her twenty-five years, and though Gwen assured her that no one expected her to be a sexual dynamo, she still worried she would fail to please.
A soft knock on the door alerted them it was time.
“That will be your Guardian,” Gwen said. “Be brave. Have fun, and remember. Titles only, tonight. Everyone will call you Venture. Don’t call anyone else by name, either.”
Maggie gave her the most self-assured nod she could manage, then opened the door. Outside stood a woman in her early thirties, nearly six feet tall, pretty, and wearing a dark-blue halter dress dusted with tiny gold embroidered stars.
“Good evening, Venture,” the woman said.
“Good evening, Guardian.”
“Please follow me.”
A bit intimidated by the size of the woman and her formality, Maggie followed her out. Gwen had explained some of the Sortition’s players and traditions. Guardian was a combination security guard and spy for the society to ensure everyone followed the rules and fulfilled the Rites. Maggie herself was labelled a Venture. The man who would shortly draw her name would be a full-fledged Argentum member. During the event, he would be referred to as Regent.
The hallway they followed was much like the rest of the Argentum center, old and stately. The walls were paneled in gorgeous dark wood. Potted trees, brass fixtures and dim lighting gave the impression of warmth, wealth and tradition. Not a lot of windows. These folks liked their privacy almost as much as they liked their ceremonies.
A year ago, Maggie would have spewed outrage at the mere idea of taking part in something like this. Not so much anymore. Life had taught her some hard lessons since then. She had learned a lot more from Gwen and Gwen’s mother, Trudy. Thanks to this traditional ceremony, Calais County was different from everywhere else. Sex wasn’t such a loaded topic. And as Gwen had said, sex wasn’t the true point of this ceremony anyhow. Argentum members used this ceremony to do business, forge deals, test and prove themselves. Maggie did understood and appreciated the deeper meaning. And hoped she could live up to all the trust Gwen had placed in her, sponsoring her for this event.
Nearer the salon, Guardian said, “Remember. If your name is drawn, do not dawdle. You must approach the Master of Ceremonies immediately and draw a disk from the Schema cup.”
Maggie nodded. Gwen had explained all that, too. The Schema was like a theme for Regent and Venture. It determined which Rites they would have to complete on the four nights of Sortition.
Outside the salon door, Maggie could hear the buzz of quiet voices. Guardian led her inside to find the room packed with people.
Their group was restricted to ages twenty-three to thirty-two. Ventures and Guardians stood on one side of the room, Regents on the other. The Ventures—both men and women—shared Maggie’s ‘nervous but trying to stay calm’ energy. Guardians had watchful, suspicious eyes. There were far more of them than could possibly be drawn by the twenty-or-so Regents.
That group was not what Maggie had expected. At all. She had braced herself for sophistication and toffee-nosed aloofness, but reality proved otherwise. The Regents gathered in small clusters, talking and laughing. Most surprisingly, these were not the idle rich. Sure, there were some stunners in the group but there were just as many ordinary Joes and Josephines waiting to take part. Their clothes, their haircuts, everything announced the down-to-earth type had equal representation in the Argentum.
Maggie and Guardian found a place to stand near the door. Only a moment or two passed before a Master of Ceremonies entered, pushing a cart bearing three ornate crystal goblets.
The rest happened quickly. The Regents lined up to draw a disk from one of the two bigger goblets, one for male Ventures, one for female. The first Regent handed his disk over to the Master of Ceremonies, who called out a number. The number corresponded to a Venture, who tripped on her way to the cart, setting everyone off into sympathetic giggling.
The second Regent to draw was female. Maggie was still checking out the tall, gangly Venture when the next Regent drew.
When the number was called out, Guardian responded.
Jolted from her curious gawking, Maggie tried to stay calm. Third draw. She’d been so worried she wouldn’t get drawn, and it had happened almost instantly.
From there, Maggie’s eyes were glued to the Regent who had drawn her number. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected. She realized she had braced herself for four days of sex with someone she didn’t find attractive.
Lack of attraction would not be a problem. Regent was in his early thirties. Very tall, with dark wavy hair, dark eyes, and arresting features. Not pretty-boy handsome. His features were too masculine for that, and his broad-shouldered, whipcord lean build promised a very interesting four days ahead.
Even through the nerves she took stock of his reaction to her. There might have been a hint of relief in there somewhere. Rather hard to judge, since she had never set eyes on the man before. She got more information from the two men he’d been standing with. The three almost had to be related. Though they all had different coloring, the shape of their eyes and the wickedly sexy mouths were identical. And she saw one of the other men nudge Regent’s elbow. The other grinned and winked at her in a way that lifted about seventy metric tons of misgivings off her chest.
Guardian led her to the cart. “Please draw from the Schema goblet.”
She indicated the largest of the three vessels. There had to be at least two-hundred smooth and rounded glass disks inside. Maggie reached in, pushed a few disks around with her fingers, then took hold of one. She handed it to the emcee, who read the selection aloud. “Gentleman’s Privilege.”
Everyone in the room stopped what they were doing. Heads turned, and all eyes fastened onto Maggie.
Regent visibly froze. Eyes wide, he glanced back at his companions. Both men had also frozen, brows raised, jaws dropped. Not with amused intrigue, but as if her Schema selection had sentenced them both to death.
Maggie longed to utter a defensive “What?”
Instead, Guardian gripped her elbow and led her away.
In the hallway, Maggie asked, “What was that? What just happened?”
Guardian didn’t answer, though her expression said volumes. Strain showed in the tight line of her mouth and the faint tassel of wrinkles at the corner of her eyes.
Only once they were outside the building, bound for the car, did Guardian answer. “I’m not sure what happened. This is only my second Sortition, and I was not warned against any particular Schema. Perhaps we should consult your sponsor. She might know more.”
Agitated, Maggie endured the ride home as if someone held a flame to her skin. She couldn’t afford for anything to go wrong, and something clearly had.
Why would everyone freak out about a Schema? As Gwen explained it, Schemas were supposed to be helpful, outlining the Rites very carefully and precisely to prevent any awkward fumbling between Regent and Venture. What on earth could have caused such a reaction? ‘Gentleman’s Privilege’ sounded innocuous enough. It wasn’t as if she’d drawn a disk with ‘Regent gets his hand chopped off’ or something.
Rattled and afraid she’d already let Gwen down, Maggie hardly wanted to get out of the car once they reached Gwen’s home. They were to have a light dinner before the Guardian would deliver Maggie for the first night’s Rite.
She dreaded facing Gwen to report trouble already. She found her sponsor in a library, sipping wine.
Instead of the calm query she’d planned, Maggie blurted out the problem. “Something happened. I drew a Schema and everyone looked at me like I was Satan.”
Gwen’s brows went up. “What did you draw?”
This time, Gwen’s face went slack. Surprise. “Oh, dear.”
“What? What did I do wrong?”
“You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s the Schema. It has a… colorful history.”
“Colorful. First, tell me. Who’s your Regent?”
“I don’t know. No one ever said his name. He was dressed all in black. Black hair, black eyes, way out of my league.”
Guardian intervened. “Zander Marshall, ma’am.”
Gwen raised a hand to her mouth, pressing the pads of her fingers to her lips. She looked distressed. “Oh, dear,” she repeated. “This could be a problem.”
“Of all the people, and all the Schemas… Maggie, child, you are either the luckiest creature ever born, or completely and utterly cursed.”
Maggie held her hands up, giving her sponsor an ‘I told you so’ expression. “This we already know. What’s wrong with Gentleman’s Privilege?”
“Nothing’s wrong with it, really. Gentleman’s Privilege is among the oldest Schema. It’s drawn perhaps once every decade. It doesn’t matter whether Regent is male or female. Every time it’s drawn and the couple successfully completes all four Rites, the couple stays together. Always. Lasting and abiding attachments. Every single time, it’s permanent.”
Maggie’s first reaction was a spike of fear. Her second was in inelegant scoff. “Not likely to be a problem this time. No disrespect, Gwen. You know I will honor the commitment, but there is no way I can form a lasting attachment to anyone in four days.”
“Really. As I remember, it took less than an hour for you and my mother to form an inexplicable bond.”
“That was different. Your mother was the sweetest, smartest, most interesting person I’d ever met.”
“And while I can’t say Zander Marshall is sweet, I can attest from personal experience that the man is no boring half-wit. He runs the Marshall companies. Successful, uber-conservative young man, guaranteed to become an Argentum Elder one day. Unfortunately, there’s a dire complication. Her name is Victoria Rodin. She wants the house on the hill, and she expects to get it from Zander. When she and her mother find out about this… Oh, dear.”
“Would you please stop saying ‘oh, dear’? And who’s this Victoria Rodin?”
“Mayor’s daughter. Living proof that beauty is only skin deep. If you make it through all four days with Zander, Victoria—or worse, that hell-beast she calls a mother—could make themselves a serious obstacle to your success in Calais County.”
Something fiery and defiant awoke in Maggie. Victoria and her mother sounded like bullies, and Maggie had been through too much this year to fall prey to anyone’s social status issues. “Forget them. All I’m worried about right now is not letting you down. I have no worry to spare for Schema superstitions or territorial mayor’s daughters.”
Gwen sighed and gave her a sidelong look. “All the same, be careful. Zander is quite demanding in business affairs. I’ve no reason to suspect he’ll be any different as a sexual partner, especially with that Schema. And beware of Victoria Rodin. Everyone knows the Gentlemen’s Privilege legend. Once she hears about it, I would be shocked if she didn’t attempt to derail you somehow.”
“Now hold on just a minute. When you sponsored me, you told me there were rules about this kind of thing. Under no circumstances was I allowed to participate if I was in a relationship. I was under the impression the rules were the same for the Regents.”
“Well, then why are you warning me about my Regent’s girlfriend?”
“No, no. Zander and Victoria are not involved. Zander has so far been blind to her attempts to snare him. Willfully, I expect.”
Maggie frowned. “What does that mean?”
“It means Zander Marshall is no fool. A man in his position needs to marry expediently, and diplomacy requires he can’t tell Victoria to shove off. Yet.”
For her sponsor’s benefit, Maggie squared her shoulders and cleared her brow into her best estimation of haughtiness. Inside, she quailed. Bad enough she had to pretend to be a siren for the next four days. Now she had a demanding partner with a bitchy wannabe girlfriend waiting to trip her up over a glass disk pulled from a goblet.
More rattled than ever, Maggie managed only a bite or two of dinner before Guardian ushered her out to the car once more and drove her across town to the rented villa where she and Zander would meet. Absolutely breathtaking setting. The villa perched atop a bluff overlooking over a bay dotted with islands. The villa itself was not large. They entered the white stucco building into a wide-open great room. To their left were the kitchen and dining room. A salon took up the right side of that floor.
Guardian led her down a staircase near the kitchen. The landing opened onto a bedroom attached to a decadent all-white bathroom complete with clawed tub and picture window.
“This is your private bath,” Guardian explained. “Each night, the Rites begin in this room for you. Regent joins you in the common room outside. You’re to have a good soak and relax while I meet with Regent. He’ll have been given a description of the Rites. I’ll find out what needs to happen, and let you know if there’s anything special required of you.”
Guardian turned on the taps and, somewhat pointedly, poured Maggie a large glass of wine. She placed it on a stool next to the bath, then helped Maggie off with her dress.
“Soak,” Guardian ordered. “Drink the wine, and relax.”
Maggie made an effort to clear her mind of everything except the all-important goal. Never mind everything else going on, her one and only task was to please her Regent, Zander Marshall.
She managed to calm herself into a nice, placid warmth until Guardian returned.
“You needn’t worry,” Guardian said. “Regent has been to this rodeo several times before. He’s cool as a cucumber, and seems to know what he’s about. And despite the Gentleman’s Privilege drama, Regent is quite pleased with you. He said you were much prettier than he expected, and he was especially pleased to learn that Gwen is your sponsor. He enjoyed Miss Trudy. He said she used to rib him something awful.”
Maggie could believe it. Gwen’s mother had been an equal opportunity ribber, making wise with the people she liked most, and loving every minute of it. To know that Miss Trudy had liked Zander Marshall enough to give him some cheek was a far greater endorsement of their Regent than Guardian could know.
Maggie asked, “So what’s our Rite?”
“A simple series, tonight. First there’s massage and some exploration, and then a specific position. Tonight requires little of you, other than staying completely passive. We’ll explain more as we go.”
After wrapping her in a bath sheet, Guardian led her out to the common room. Beautiful space. Parquet floor, a wide window dazzling her with a sunset view and subdued lighting. A tall, sheet-covered bench had been set up near the window. A bed sat farther back in the room. Other than a bunch of cabinets and a settee or two, the space was otherwise empty.
“Regent will join us in a while,” Guardian said. “For now, I’ll start the massage. Onto the table, please. Face down.”
Maggie settled herself on the bench, a little self-conscious at being left nude this way. She breathed deep of the smell of clean sheets laced with jasmine, counting breaths, trying to retain some fraction of the calm she’d managed earlier.
Guardian rattled her all over again by slipping a blindfold over her head and securing it over her eyes.
“Why am I not allowed to see what’s going on?”
“Every Venture wears a blindfold the first night. The guidebook says it’s meant to remind Ventures how vulnerable they are to their Regents. The less official version says something more like the Sortition organizers don’t like to see their members fail, and the blindfold cuts out a whole load of awkward the first night.”
Maggie nodded, then flinched as something wet drizzled onto her back. Guardian’s hands followed a moment later, stroking long lines along Maggie’s spine.
Guardian returned to explanations. “All Schema are similar the first night. There’s a preparation stage like this massage, and then Regent takes over. Gentleman’s Privilege with a male Regent can be taxing for the Venture. You are turning all control over to the Regent. He can do as he likes with you, as long as he completes the Rite.”
“So the less official version says I’m basically Zander Marshall’s sex toy for the next four days.”
“That’s one way to look at it, I suppose, but it would do for you to remember something. The Sortition is more about the Regents than the Ventures, and they don’t call this Schema the Gentleman’s sex toy. They use the word privilege. Meaning the Venture is a privilege, not something owed to the Argentum. Regents must treat their Ventures as the gift that they are, with respect. And don’t forget, either, than I’m required to stay in the room to make sure that he does.”
Nerves rolled through like waves as Guardian massaged her back, her arms, her legs and finally her feet. She was so relaxed by then that she didn’t realize they were no longer alone until the murmur of a low voice alerted her to Regent’s presence in the room.
She could not help but tense up at the first touch of his hands. His hands were much larger than Guardian’s. Larger, stronger and warmer. It was a trick of the mind that the long, firm stroke of his thumbs between her shoulder blades felt sexual. She would be at this man’s mercy for the next four days. It both scared and excited her. She had no idea what to expect. What if she didn’t like it? What if she didn’t please him?
He gave her nothing to fear, starting out. He retraced Guardian’s steps, massaging her back and shoulders and thighs for a while before anything turned interesting. Blindfolded, she couldn’t see what was happening, but both Zander and Guardian must be moving furniture around. She could hear the two of them working on either side of her. She felt something bump into the bench.
Guardian patted her gently on the buttock. “Lift up. I need to slide something under your hips.”
Maggie gripped the sides of the bench and did as Guardian bid, coming up onto her hands and knees. No sooner up than Guardian guided her back down to find a soft but solid roll pillow now kept her from lying completely flat on the table. The pillow supported her weight, but forced her bottom up into the air.
She didn’t require a diagram to understand the pillow’s purpose. Lifted this way, her position put clit, pussy and anus within easy view and reach.
A rush of heat billowed to life in her belly. The focus would shift now from relaxing to arousing. She wasn’t completely ready for it, but curiosity and a spark of desire helped keep her still.
Zander took hold of one of her wrists. He pulled until her arm was stretched to the far end of the table, above her head. They had moved another bench or something at the head of the bench. Zander placed her arm on the cool, firm surface. He fastened a wide, soft cuff around her wrist, and another at her elbow.
Guardian gave the explanation. “Your arms and legs will be restrained while Regent explores your body. Do not resist him.”
She wouldn’t have dared, given everything at stake, though the blindfold unnerved her more than ever. If she could see him, at least, she might feel more at ease. See for herself whether he was nervous or already aroused or bored by the whole thing.
He fastened her other arm into place before moving onto her legs. The simple act of his hands gently drawing her right ankle a couple inches to the side made everything from her navel down to her knees begin to steam with anticipation. He secured her ankle, then repeated the act on the other side, leaving her legs spread slightly. The pillow already gave him access to her pussy. This was sheer invitation.
She decided she liked him, at least a little, when he placed a hand on her left buttock. The touch was not meant to arouse, only to comfort.
“Comfortable?” he asked.
She nodded. Nice voice. Deep, and though not exactly friendly, not impersonal either.
He took the hand away and she heard him moving something nearby. A moment later both hands returned, slippery with oil again as he began anew on her back and shoulders, returning her to a relaxed state.
Still, her body was on high alert to his touch, responding to his warm hands. Everywhere he touched, her nerve endings buzzed with potential energy.
At last he allowed the massage to turn more intimate. He oiled his hands again and spilled more oil onto her buttocks. The warm liquid ran onto her back and between her legs. The feel of it stimulated an already overcharged circuit and made her clench up in hopeful anticipation.