The Raven's Fall: Preview Chapters 1 & 2
Shifting in the cold leather seat, I do my best to stabilize the head of the exhausted child tucked against my shoulder. His light snores are comforting. I must hand it to my son; he is a resilient five-year-old.
“Tori, do you want me to lay Sebastian down here—give your arm a rest?” The question comes from the man I’ve been trying hard to ignore for the past several hours, Professor Mitch Logan. Or whatever his name is.
Avoiding his gaze, I flick my eyes toward the opposite side of the sleek limo that had met us outside the LAX tarmac several hours earlier. What they settle on gives little comfort.
Shaking my head in answer to Mitch’s question, I lock eyes with the green-eyed brunette that bears a striking resemblance to the man seated across from her.
Ana, Mitch’s sister. Her curious gaze is too similar to the one I am trying hard to avoid. I turn back to the tinted window and the dense forest zipping by.
My phone buzzes from my front pocket for the third time since our abrupt departure. Digging it out, I see the expected name announced as a missed call. Cami.
Sometimes, it paid to have a best friend with a near-telepathic connection with me. This isn’t one of those times.
Ignoring the call—I don’t even know what to tell her at the moment—I place the phone back into my pocket, trying not to disturb Sebastian. I can imagine Cami’s response to “Hi, don’t worry, but I’m being taken to an unknown location somewhere between California and Utah. Oh yeah, and I’m not going to Brazil for the accounting internship because it never existed and neither does the ‘accounting department head’ that you were convinced would be the enduring love of my life.” I’m not sure who would freak out more—her or her husband, Eric.
Wincing at the thoughts, I consider my previous experiences with love. One man confused about his sexual orientation—check. One with an unshakeable drug addiction—check, check. But this?
All I know is a few hours ago, I was heading to Brazil for what I thought was a simple accounting internship with an attractive escort (two, counting his friend), my neighbor, Liz, and her son, Drake. And now, I am in a limo, being trailed by the latter three people—two of whom I involved in something I can’t even explain.
In fact, the only explanation I had received for the sudden violence that had erupted at LAX shortly before our flight was due for boarding, was that it was something I needed to “just trust me on.”
Ironic considering the declaration had come from the mysterious professor at my university that I’m positive, at this point, isn’t even a real professor. When it was followed by the violent apprehension of a stranger who just seconds before had been stroking my son’s head, I’m not sure “trusting him” was ever going to be a possibility.
Tears of frustration threaten behind eyes throbbing with pressure. I thought three years of abstinence would spare me from repeating this pattern of picking the wrong guy. The universe, at large, seems determined to show me differently.
“It’s just over this hill,” Ana says.
“Are you sure he won’t be there?” Mitch asks, raking his hand through the wavy hair that is more displaced than I’ve ever seen it. It gives him a younger, more innocent look.
Steeling my defense against his vulnerability, I fake a yawn until it becomes a real one. Closing my eyes, I rest my head against the cool window.
“No, he’s closing out some big deal he’s been working on for over a year now. Although, you’re going to have to talk to him sometime. He is our dad.”
I take longer, slower breaths, hoping they’ll continue.
“I’m grateful he came to your aid, Ana, but you’re a thirty-five-year-old woman and this is the second time you’ve seen the asshole in person. I’m thirty-seven and still have yet to do so. I wouldn’t hold your breath for a warm reunion between us.”
The simmering anger in his tone is one I hadn’t heard from him since he rescued me from an attack in a parking garage. Coupled with the ease I had just seen him take out two large nasty characters at the airport, it is chilling.
“Did you forget how much mom struggled after he walked out on her?” he continues. “I’m surprised you just let him back in your life like it all meant nothing.”
“That’s not fair,” Ana says.
She sounds pissed. I can’t blame her; I don’t know their situation, but I recognize someone shooting under the belt when I hear it.
Another awkward silence hits the air-conditioned interior. My eyelids flicker as shadows and light dance across them. I open them slightly, zeroing in on Ana as she lifts her hand in a fluttering motion.
“A-and this isn’t the second time I’ve met him,” Ana drops the bombshell and then sits back as if bracing herself for an explosion.
Not even caring if I’m caught, I open my eyes wide and fix them on Mitch’s face. He is unnaturally still, and my heartbeat picks up in tempo.
His lids close for a moment and his breath expels in a loud exhale. Opening them, he turns to glance at Sebastian, and I lower my lashes before his eyes reach mine.
“We’ll talk about this interesting bit of information later. Now isn’t the time, Ana,” he says, resignation giving his words a defeated tone.
The limo slows and pulls onto a gravel road. Sebastian’s head slips from my shoulder, and I’m forced to abandon my headrest. His eyes spring open.
“Mom? Weah aw we?”
Before I can answer, Mitch butts in, “Hey bud, we’re near my dad’s house. Is it OK if we stop in for a little visit?” His forced joviality grates on my frazzled nerves.
“Yeah! Shuwh! Does youw dad know how to battle mean guys, too?” he asks, hero worship bursting from his tone.
“Well …” Mitch flashes a faint smile. “The thing is, Sebastian—”
“Our dad isn’t home at the moment because he’s protecting someone from bad guys right now, bud,” Ana interjects.
“Wow, is he a ninja?” Sebastian’s forehead rises in a solitary line.
“No, he runs a company that saves people from being hurt by anyone that gets really mad at them.”
I look to Mitch, confused at this rosy picture painted of a father he hadn’t seemed impressed with.
Shooting Ana a thunderous scowl that is gone almost before it materializes, Mitch turns back to Sebastian. “I suspect my dad finds money more fun to collect than good-guy points. However, I’m sure he has something awesome in the house that a boy your age will love—maybe a pair of practice nunchuks.”
“Woohoo! Mom can I use them, pleeeaz?”
We pull down a narrow driveway and I can see an opening in the trees just ahead. A gasp escapes when we pass into the clearing.
A formidable fortress stands in unapologetic splendor from the side of a rocky hill. A large man-made lake beckons on one side, softening the austerity of the modern lines of the house. I am used to the open windows that are prevalent in California and scarcely found in Maryland, where I was born, but this? It is a nod to the architect that such a transparent house can also appear indestructible. That impression is due largely to wide slabs of sleek stone that rise in tall columns and span the bottom of the home.
Where do you even enter this monstrosity? My fascination is echoed by Sebastian as he leans toward the window facing the house as we pull closer to it. “Wow! It looks like a fohtwess! Is THIS youhr daddy’s house?!”
Mitch is staring out the window, much more subdued and a hell of a lot less impressed than Sebastian and I are at the sight.
Tight-lipped but gamely trying to appease Sebastian’s excitement, Mitch answers, “It is, buddy. But we aren’t staying long, OK? I don’t want you to get your hopes up too much.” He glances at me, so much misery in his green eyes that I have to look away.
My breath hitches. The shock and pain of betrayal wars with the sympathy his obvious suffering engenders, threatening my composure.
I have so many questions.
I’m just not sure I want the answers.
The amount of joy and despair someone can feel in one combined moment is something I had never considered before. At least, not until several hours ago when my sister had shown up at the same time my hopes of building a new life had crumbled into a convoluted mess. To be fair, things had been tangled before her reappearance. Now they are so snarled, it will likely take a lifetime more than I have to sort it all out.
Stepping out of the door as it swings open to reveal a giant of a man (on my father’s payroll for more than greeting guests, from the look of him), I’m struck anew by the magnificence of the property. Looks like Dad has done well for himself, despite his faithless, black soul.
“Welcome, Mr. Ravenschall,” the giant says, his expression neutral. “I’m Viernan. I’ve been instructed to ensure that you and your guests receive the utmost care. Would you like a tour?”
Ignoring the sounds of impatience emitting from behind me, I shake my head. “I appreciate the welcome, Viernan. I’d like to postpone the tour. If you can just show us to our respective rooms, that would be sufficient for now.”
“Of course, sir.” He turns his head toward a pink-cheeked woman I hadn’t noticed standing behind him. “Mrs. Hunt?”
“I’d be delighted!” the woman beams, stepping out from Viernan’s shadow. “You poor dears, you must be starving and in want of a good bath. I’ve had your rooms readied, if you’ll just follow me.”
I’m surprised by the matronly look of what I assume is my father’s housekeeper. She doesn’t fit into the playboy lifestyle I had always attributed to the man.
Mrs. Hunt’s smile widens as her gaze settles upon Sebastian but fades again as the shrill voice of a hungry, tired child sounds from the doorway behind us.
“But Moomm, I’m hungry!” Drake stomps through the door, his mother’s hand guiding him forward.
Liz’s dark, almond eyes search the room until they light upon Tori. The worry behind that look deepens my guilt. It was my fault they were all drawn into this mess. None of them had asked for this.
As her gaze shifts to mine, I’m the first to look away. I deserve her reproach but after spending the past few hours in tight quarters being speared by an identical expression, I needed to recharge.
Fortunately, the housekeeper steps in. “Of course you are, my dear. My name is Mrs. Hunt, but you can call me Mrs. H. I’m here to make sure you don’t waste away from hunger. And what is your name?”
Drake grabs his mother’s leg and peeks up shyly from underneath his dark lashes. “Drake. And this is my mommy!”
Eyes twinkling, Mrs. Hunt nods her head. “I thought she might be. And does Mommy have a name?”
“Elizabeth,” Liz answers, her arms wrapping protectively around Drake’s shoulders. “My friends call me Liz.” Her wary tone suggests she’s holding back judgment of which category the housekeeper falls in. For now.
This is the first time I have heard steel in the gentle woman’s tone. Not that I am surprised. Considering what she has been hit with today, I admire her pluck.
“They are both beautiful names. You can call me Mrs. H, dearie. Well, Mr. Ravenschall didn’t tell me we were to be delighted with two hungry, growing boys, but you aren’t to worry yourselves a bit. Mrs. H will have you straightened out in a jiffy!” She walks over to an intercom on the suede-textured walls and pushes a button. “Ms. Lottie?”
“Yes, Mrs. H?” is the immediate reply.
“Please prepare the room adjoining Ms. McKinley and Mr. Sebastian’s room, dearie. Oh, and tell Mr. Blasson that we’ll need two more dinner services—one for a very hungry boy.” Turning back to us, she gestures toward a doorway. “Follow me, please.”
I can feel twin laser beams of outrage boring into my back as I follow the housekeeper through an impressive foyer and up a marble staircase that takes up much of the entranceway.
I know, I know, Tori. I have some explaining to do. My mouth pulls to one side at the understatement.