EXCERPT: Lovers Walk

Calais County Series, Book 2

“A sexual lottery,” Haven Smith said aloud. “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

She turned to look over her shoulder at her uncle.

The pair of them waited together in a sitting room. Their private sanctum hid deep within a building complex owned by the Argentum, a secret society. Neither Haven nor her uncle were members. The Argentum had granted a temporary pass inside these stately, historic walls while Haven participated in the society’s most risqué ritual.

Sortition, the Argentum’s lottery, would soon begin.

Haven played with one glossy leaf on a huge potted rhododendron. She watched her uncle, Ford Coolidge, sip scotch from a crystal tumbler. As the older man lowered the tumbler once more, a slice of late Wednesday afternoon sunlight glinted through the tumbler, igniting the amber liquid inside.

Thanks to a rift between families, Haven had met Ford—her mother’s brother—for the first time two months ago. She thought it strange to have such a man for an uncle. When she pictured the Jones everyone tried to keep up with, Mr. Jones looked exactly like Ford Coolidge: successful, handsome, smart and ready for any adventure at the drop of an excruciatingly stylish hat.

She watched him spin the tumbler idly while he sat with one long athletic leg draped over the other. Very handsome, indeed. A bit pretty, she thought, but still very masculine with piercing blue eyes, a sharp brow and hair black as a raven’s wing. Though nearing fifty, soft touches of gray had only just begun to invade Ford’s hair, and the man must spend hours in the gym every day. He had the physique of a film star, and the blinding white smile to match.

Haven so badly wanted to trust him.

No one else did. Especially not her attorneys. They thought him too slick, and based on his professional history, too opportunistic by far.

He said, “Sometimes we have to take outrageous risks to get what we truly need.”

“It’s almost like you read my mind,” she muttered.

“What was that, dear?”

“Nothing. Nerves, I expect.”

“Try not to be nervous,” Ford said. “The Argentum holds this crazy ritual every year. They’ve run it for centuries, long before the society ever spread to the States.”

Haven knew a lot more about the Argentum than she had shared with her uncle. Growing up, she’d spent every summer here in Calais County. Though the Argentum tried to keep itself and its rituals secret, with traditions like this sexual lottery, they might as well try to hide the sunrise.

The Argentum did love their traditions. They operated on a ‘you-scratch-my-back, I’ll-scratch-yours’ basis. Sortition was no exception. The ritual gave participants a chance to forge deals and alliances. Entrants who survived rigorous mental and physical exams made it into a drawing ceremony where participating Argentum members drew a name from a cup. The randomly selected pair were then teamed up for four nights of sexual Rites. If the pair made it through all four Rites, both parties got what they needed.

Haven ran her thumb along the leaf’s edge. She winced as the sharp edge began to slice.

Typical. For her, the Argentum came hand-in-hand with painful remorse. Six years ago, she had fallen in love with one of its members, Alex Marshall. In the two months they shared, Alex Marshall had changed everything. Changed her.

But not enough. Her parents, judging Alex Marshall inferior, had burned that bridge beyond repair. The fact that Haven had allowed them to separate her from the man she loved could still make her squirm with shame and embarrassment.

Her return to Calais County meant she might have a chance to extend a long-overdue apology, but she knew what would happen. Alex would do the gracious thing and hear her out. Nothing more. He would dismiss her, and walk away unaffected.

Lucky for them both, their paths would not cross. Though the Sortition entrant list was strictly confidential before the event, her lawyers’ cautious inquiries had assured her that Alex never took part in this ritual. She would not see him unless she sought him out herself.

Her uncle said, “This still doesn’t seem right. I should have entered the lottery instead of you.”

“Please stop,” Haven said. “It’s not your place to satisfy this debt with the Argentum. I’m the one who wants to resurrect Crow’s Nest Lake. And you’ve been far more understanding than I had any right to expect.”

“Nonsense. As far as I’m concerned, the feud between your mother and me ended when she died. It was a stupid argument to begin with, and how foolish of us to let it linger. Now she’s gone, and we can never make it up.”

Haven sighed and gave her uncle a sympathetic look. She knew exactly how it felt to carry so much guilt and regret. Those feelings were amplified now that she was back in Calais County, so close to Alex, the person she had hurt.

Ford had suffered under a similar burden ever since Haven’s parents had died four years ago in a car wreck. How it must eat at him to let something so petty go unresolved.

Fear of an icy reception had kept Haven from contacting Ford until necessity forced her hand two months ago. She had been so afraid he wouldn’t speak to her about Crow’s Nest Lake. He had inherited the property from some ancestor or other in his teens, and her dreams for the future centered on that deserted patch of water and forest.

Admittedly, the first time she’d called Ford to discuss a possible sale, he had sounded cold and remote. The caution hadn’t survived their first face-to-face meeting. Once he realized the feud hadn’t poisoned her against him, he seemed to become determined to make amends by doing everything possible to help push the sale through.

Back home, Haven’s attorneys weren’t convinced Ford’s motives were purely emotional or altruistic. Sometimes Haven wasn’t sure, either, but she felt for the man, and he had certainly gone out of his way to clear obstacles for her. When they found out there was a lien on Crow’s Nest Lake, held by the Argentum, Ford had made the overtures to the secret society that led them here.

When Ford spoke again, it sounded to Haven as if he were trying to comfort himself. “We’re very lucky, you know. Considering how many Argentum members got burned when Crow’s Nest Lake went belly up all those years ago, they’re letting us off easy.”

And how. More than a century ago, one of her ancestors had taken out a four-thousand-dollar loan from the Argentum to keep Crow’s Nest Lake afloat. They had defaulted on the loan. Haven had paid it off already, but the Argentum had attached strings to the deal. They would not release their lien on Crow’s Nest Lake unless Haven entered and completed Sortition—a hell of a deal, since the Argentum had waived a century’s worth of interest and penalties.

Ford couldn’t sell Crow’s Nest Lake without that lien release. Her entire future depended on a successful Sortition, and that was not a sure thing by any means. Not only could she and her unknown partner fail one of the four Rites, but there was no guarantee she would even make it into the actual event. There were far more entrants than there were Argentum members to draw them all. For her to progress, an Argentum member had to draw her name during the drawing ceremony tonight. All she could do now was wait and pray her name got drawn.

Impatient, she smoothed her skirt. Wardrobe for the event walked a line between formal and provocative. Her sleeveless and backless dress showed off miles of lightly freckled skin. Its emerald color made her red hair brighter than ever.

Normally Haven would never wear anything like the silk sheath. She never had occasion for anything so glamorous. For the first two and a half years after the accident, she had spent all her time with lawyers and financial advisors learning to manage her parents’ sizeable estate. Overseeing the funds and properties was a fulltime job in itself, and eighteen months ago, she had gone back to university. She had no time for glitzy parties. Most days she felt lucky to spend ten minutes with friends.

A knock made them both start.

Through the door, Haven heard a familiar female voice. “Let me in, please.”

“That’s Guardian,” Ford said.

Guardian caused opposing flutters of relief and nerves. Their Guardian’s arrival meant the event would soon begin, and Haven would be glad to see her. Guardian worked for the Argentum. Because neither Haven nor her sponsor were members, they had received their Guardian early to act as an event coach.

Unusual circumstances, Guardian had explained last week. She would accompany Haven through the drawing ceremony. If Haven’s name was drawn, Guardian would stay with her through the next four nights as a combination chaperone and spy for the Argentum.

Haven wasn’t allowed to know the woman’s real name. No one used their real name in Sortition. Others would refer to Haven as Venture. If her name was drawn by an Argentum member, she would call him ‘Regent’.

Hoping she wouldn’t screw this up too badly, Haven approached the door. She had tried to show no outward sign of nerves, but now that the moment was almost upon her, she could not deny the growing disquiet over giving herself sexually to a complete stranger for the next four days.

Ready, Haven opened the door for Guardian. She was thirty-something, tall and imposing. Haven thought her beautiful, with sunny blond hair and a gorgeous golden silk gown. Its clean, simple lines meant big money and even bigger elegance. The gilding, according to Guardian, showed respect to the Argentum.

Haven had intended to give a refined, nonchalant greeting. She blurted instead. “Wow, you look amazing.”

Guardian nodded in return. “Venture.”

Ford got to his feet. After wishing Guardian a polite good evening, he bowed slightly to Haven. “As soon as you’ve gone, I’ll head back to my hotel. Good luck. Call me once the drawing’s over.”

“It’s time,” Guardian said, “Come with me, Venture. We’ve got a long walk ahead of us.”

Leaving Ford behind, Guardian led Haven into a hallway of darkly paneled walls and ceilings. Wall sconces shaped like candles cast a welcoming light.

Such a beautiful building. Rather formal for Haven’s tastes but the sense of age and civility soothed her, and made her feel less alone. For almost three hundred years, other Sortition hopefuls had walked these halls toward the salon where the drawing would take place.

She responded absent-mindedly to Guardian’s polite but meaningless small talk while her thoughts strayed to Alex Marshall once again. She bet he knew this maze of a building from top to bottom, inside out.

She really needed to stop thinking about him, but how could she help it? She hadn’t stepped foot in Calais County since the breakup six years ago. Only natural to feel curious about him, she supposed. Also masochistic. Surely Alex had married by now. Even if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t welcome a reunion.

Guardian brought Haven back to the present with a gentle hand on her arm. So busy thinking about Alex, Haven had nearly walked into the door Guardian held open.

“Shortcut,” Guardian said. “We’ll cut through here and re-enter through the front doors.”

Outside, two of the Center’s many ells boxed them in. Guardian explained that the place had started as one simple structure three centuries ago. Over the ensuing years, the Argentum had added onto their base of operations until it sprawled in all directions.

Haven smiled at another memory. “I always loved seeing this place at night. With all the landscaping lights and the interior lights burning, it’s so beautiful. When I was little I used to think it looked like an alligator made of stars, crawling around at the base of those hills.”

Guardian gave her a pleased but mildly quizzical look, but then smiled and led her through the Center’s main entrance. They headed straight for the salon where the drawing would take place. Among the first Guardian-Venture pairs to arrive, they had the pleasure of watching the others file in. The dresses she saw on Guardians and other Ventures were a stream of lovely fabrics and sophisticated design. Even the male Ventures looked amazing. Nervous, too.

They all gathered on one side of the Salon. The Argentum members gathered on the other, and they gave a much different impression. Both male and female, some were as well-dressed as the Ventures and Guardians, but some were more casual. It struck her how at ease they seemed with one another. And why wouldn’t they? Most of them had lived in Calais County all their lives, and sexual lottery or not, this event was a tradition plain as chalk to them.

Still, their relaxed state had an effect on her, something like solidarity. No one participated in Sortition without powerful incentive to succeed. Every Regent and Venture had something huge riding on this event. Seeing the Regents so calm and self-assured made her wish she could keep her eye on the prize the way they did, with no qualms.

She sighed and realized she’d withdrawn to the fringes of the ever-growing group. If her mother were alive, the woman would be pinching Haven’s elbow to drive her toward the center of the group, encouraging her to socialize and shine bright. Those stage-mom tendencies had driven Haven crazy.

Her breath caught when she saw a familiar face enter the salon: Zander Marshall, one of Alex’s cousins. Haven had expected to see a Marshall or two while in the area. Inevitable, since Alex had cousins galore, but the actual sight still packed some oomph. Zander Marshall was tall like Alex, but Zander’s hair was darker. She remembered him as shockingly nice and personable for such a powerful man. He had poured on some extra charm the day they met to gently goad Alex, who had a more reserved disposition. Identical eyes and mouth, though, and the same smile.

She had loved that smile. She had loved everything about Alex Marshall, period. Until Alex, everyone had seen her as the over-achieving debutante her mother had wanted the world to see, not the painfully shy doormat she had truly been back then. Yet Alex had unearthed in her someone new between those two opposing poles, someone with grand dreams and potential.

Haven had found those glimpses of a possible future terrifying. They were quickly crowded out by the attraction between her and Alex. She had been a virgin before that summer. Even thinking about the sexual education she’d received from Alex Marshall sent a blazing, ravening hunger alight.

The resurrection triggered another image of Alex as she remembered him, tall and broad and vitally alive. He had brown hair, eyes like faded blue jeans and a sensual mouth crowning a tight, lithe body earned through physical labor. She pictured Alex sitting at the breakfast table at his ranch house, long lashes sweeping downward when she’d looked up to catch him staring at her again.

She smiled at the memory, and her imagination played another trick, adding a few years to Alex, dressing him in a tailor-cut blue suit, and making that apparition appear in the doorway.

When his apparition’s denim-blue eyes sought and found his cousin, Haven realized the Alex Marshall in the doorway was no conjuration. The man himself wove his way through the crowd while she retreated even farther into the shadows.

She was sure her heart would pound as soon as it started to beat again. What was Alex doing here? Alex had never entered Sortition before. Why would he pick this year to start?

Guardian sidled closer. “Venture? Is something wrong?”

Haven leaned against the darkly paneled wall and squeezed her eyes shut. This could not be happening. Why was this happening?

Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe Alex hadn’t come to draw a name.

Please, please, let that be the case. How could she find out? What should she do?

Oh, God. She needed to calm down. Calm. Be calm. She spent so much of her time pretending to a sophistication and confidence she didn’t really feel. Now was the worst possible time for her act to fail.

“Venture?” Guardian repeated.

“I’m okay. I’m fine.”

Guardian raised a brow in response while Haven wished fervently that she had scored better in Statistics class. Sixty-odd Ventures, or thereabouts. Twenty-some Regents, about two-thirds of them male. Presuming all the male Regents would draw female Ventures, there had to be a statistic proving the odds were firmly against Alex Marshall drawing her name.

Wishing she could dissolve into the wall’s aged wood, she tried to do the math. Not possible. This couldn’t happen. She was prepared to give herself to a stranger. That much, she could handle. The thought of giving herself to her first and only love, she definitely could not handle.

Guardian spoke with some force this time. “Venture. Comport yourself. Remember what you have at stake.”

Yes. Right. Crow’s Nest Lake. Crow’s Nest Lake was her life’s ambition. She needed it the way other people needed light and laughter. She did not need Alex Marshall. Why reopen that wound?

And really, Alex Marshall should be the least of her worries. The odds favored exclusion, that no one would draw her name. If her named stayed in that cup, all hope of resurrecting Crow’s Nest Lake was lost.

She took a deep breath and tried to regain control of a panicked mind. God. One sight of Alex Marshall, and she lost it. What sort of sentimental cupcake fell apart that way? After six years, shouldn’t she have built up an immunity?

Giving herself a little shake, she straightened her spine. No need to hide in the shadows. The room was crowded, and even if Alex or Zander spotted her, she doubted they would instantly recognize her. Back then, Mom had dictated everything about her life, including her appearance. Her hair had been bleached and foiled into a high-maintenance strawberry blond. Life had revolved around a strict exercise regimen, running six miles every morning and spending two hours each night in the gym, with or without the personal trainer.

These days, her hair had gone back to its natural vibrant ginger. She wore it up in a loose knot, cooperating with its natural curl. Her makeup consisted of soft brown eyeliner, some mascara and pinky-coral lip gloss. And though she still spent a fair amount of time in the gym, she was no longer the half-starved Barbie doll her mother had cultivated. She had some meat on her bones now. Curves, too. Completely different than she had looked back then.

The differences ran much deeper than appearance. Her life was her own now. She herself had changed, and she did not want to backslide to the nineteen-year-old innocent who wept herself to sleep every night over Alex. She was stronger than that now. Wiser, and more accomplished. Her sudden lack of confidence came from the shock of seeing him again so unexpectedly. As soon as the drawing ended, she would recover just fine.

She clung to the fringes of the room, trying to keep her eyes off Alex without success. Curiosity had her gaze returning to him over and over again. He looked different, too: leaner, harder, and colder, somehow. Still gorgeous, but there were tinges of frost about him now where there had only been sunny warmth before.

Alex and Zander stood talking, oblivious to everyone else until a third person joined their group. Another of the Marshall cousins, for sure. They all looked alike.

The Master of Ceremonies walked in with a cart while a sense of dread settled over Haven. What if everything went wrong and Alex drew her name? Tiny odds didn’t matter. Chance could still fail her.

The Argentum members formed a loose lineup close to the emcee’s cart. Alex and his cousins gathered near the front of the line. At least their draws would happen right away and she wouldn’t have to hold her breath long.

The emcee’s cart carried three large crystal goblets. She knew from Guardian’s coaching that each goblet contained smooth glass disks. The two smaller goblets held disks etched with numbers assigned to Ventures—one goblet for male Ventures, the other for females. To prevent any shenanigans, only the Guardians knew their Venture’s number before the lottery began.

The third goblet, larger than the other two, held disks etched with the name of Schema. Drawn by Ventures instead of Regents, a Schema was a theme for the Sortition Rites the couple would perform together.

Before Haven had quite readied herself, the first Regent drew from the Venture goblet. The emcee called out a number, and a Guardian responded with a soft, “Here.”

Together Guardian and Venture approached the cart. The Venture tripped on her way. Everyone smiled or laughed in sympathy with the Venture, who held her hands up as if fielding applause. Venture drew a Schema called Hand of Ra, and the room responded with indulgent smiles and a few disappointed sighs. After, the Guardian led her Venture from the salon. Their Regent retreated a few steps to watch the rest of the drawing ceremony.

A second draw, this time with a female Regent, followed the exact same pattern.

Next came Zander Marshall. Haven watched him approach the cart. A sense of horror flooded into her as he reached into the goblet. The only thing more awkward than spending Sortition with Alex would be spending the next four nights with one of his cousins instead.

Won’t happen, can’t happen, she promised herself.

The emcee called out Zander’s pick. The Guardian of a pretty brunette responded. Zander’s Venture approached the cart and drew a Schema. When the emcee called out “Gentleman’s Privilege”, the entire room froze.

Haven drew her lips between her teeth and bit down to suppress a smile. Guardian had mentioned the Gentleman’s Privilege Schema. Throughout history, every couple who successfully completed all four Rites stayed together permanently. Since she doubted Zander Marshall had ever failed at anything in his life, Haven hoped he and the brunette would be very happy together.

After watching Zander’s Venture walk out with her Guardian, Haven braved a peek at Alex’s reaction. He looked gob-smacked and concerned. The other cousin was struggling to wipe the grin off his face as Zander, looking stunned and troubled himself, retreated from the cart.

Pandemonium claimed the salon. Ventures and Regents alike filled the room with cat calls and wolf whistles, teasing poor Zander and making an awful racket. The emcee had to call Alex’s name twice to bring attention back to the drawing ceremony. It took Alex a moment to recover enough to draw from the female Venture cup. Still focused on Zander, he looked almost absentminded as he handed the disk to the emcee.

Haven’s nerves attuned themselves onto her Guardian. The slightest flinch from the woman in response to Alex’s number would send her into panic.

“Sixteen,” the emcee announced.

Not so much as a blink. Guardian continued to scan the room, watching all the disorder with an air of sour disapproval.

Haven deflated with a confused mixture of relief and disappointment. Thank heaven she’d dodged the Alex bullet. She couldn’t imagine a reunion with Alex Marshall under such sexually charged circumstances. Yet some vindictive imp stuck her with a dagger of jealousy knowing some other Venture would have Alex to themselves the next four nights.

The emcee repeated himself. “Sixteen? Guardians, check your numbers, please. Regent has drawn number sixteen.”

Beside her, Guardian started. “Oh. Sorry. Here!”