FREEDOM : Excerpt
Madeleine ran as if the devil himself were on her. She glanced back when she heard the hounds then tripped, scraping her hands as her head whipped forward. Her temple struck a tree root. She groaned, feeling the trail of blood marching slowly down her forehead, the coinciding beats in her skull growing with the advance. She crawled forward, slowly at first, dirt caking the scrapes on her palms before she gathered up her skirts and scrambled to her feet.
He will never catch me. I will never go back, I will never be his. I will die first.
She tried to catch her breath as she stumbled wildly. Tears spilled down her cheeks as she fought the barrage of low-hung branches and high-reaching roots. She leaned against a tree trunk to steady herself, her hand shaking as she yanked at her corset, trying to loosen it.
She heard the dogs to her right and concentrated on her bearing. This was her only chance. The Earl of Hepplewort became more daring and devious with every sunset and she didn’t believe her fiancé intended to wait for the marriage before making her his own. She shifted direction to compensate for the chase and glimpsed the bright sunlight of a break in the tangled woods. She knew it wasn’t far to the manor, but had no idea how she was to survive the run across open meadow with his hounds on her. Surely Lord Hepplewort would call them off before the duke discovered his trespass. Surely she would make it to safety.
She heard the group of hounds approach in the rustling of the underbrush with the snarling and snapping of jaws and her heartbeat rushed to her throat, forcing a scream that tore through her like a jagged knife. The rumble of a carriage gave her hope and she drove herself toward it through the trees as one of the hounds tore at her skirts. The horn blew, recalling the dogs as she launched herself from the protective covering of the forest—directly into the path of a pair of horses.
“Mon Dieu!” The words ripped through her as the large black horses startled and reared, their frightened neighs filling the clearing with warning. She fell back as their front legs came within a hairsbreadth of her nose, then the first hoof came down, dispatching the hound by her feet with a horrid shriek. She flung her arms about her head and prayed for a swift end.
The alarm went off at 5 a.m. and Francine hit the snooze. It went off again at 5:10 and 5:15. At 5:20 she rolled out of bed, bleary-eyed but moving. I should just go back to bed, she thought. The office would miss me for exactly five minutes before some other up-and-comer like Isaac stepped up to steal my position. She sneered. Let him have it.
She dressed in soft black yoga pants and a washed-out green tank and turned for the door of her bedroom as she slipped into her shoes. Grabbing her iPod, she hurried down the hall toward the fire escape. She ran nine flights down to the second floor landing, then back up and down four more times before returning to her apartment.
Still moving quickly, she stripped her clothes off and threw them, missing the basket by the bathroom door. Instead, they landed on the ceramic tiles with a sweaty thwack. She yanked the shower on and brushed her teeth as she considered the candles and bath oils she kept on a shelf by the tub, wondering when she would have the time, or inclination, to use them. She never seemed to make it past the browse, dream, purchase phase.
Thirty minutes later Francine looked at the clock and grunted, then gazed in the mirror and took a deep breath. Her short golden hair brushed her shoulders in gentle waves. Her wide mouth was held in a tight line of concentration.
She relaxed and smiled, checking her suit for stray hairs as she flattened the lapels and smoothed the skirt around her wide hips. She glanced up at her face, catching the shadow of insecurity in her own gaze. She poked her tongue out. “Blah!” she exclaimed, staring at the mirror. As if it wasn’t bad enough that she was terrified of her presentation today, she had to be obsessing about looks, too.
Today is the first day of my future. Today is the first day of my future, she chanted. It was the culmination of years of hard work, so why was she questioning it? Her academic accomplishments had pushed her into an internship with an international firm, and that had led to a much sought-after—albeit temporary—position. She intended to make it permanent today. She was doing what everyone expected of her, on a track bound for certain glory: a high paying position, a big house in Cherry Hills, followed by—she mentally ticked off her fingers—husband, dog, children, fish, and happiness.
Going back to her dresser, she picked up the old family portrait that had been taken just a month before the accident. Her thumb rubbed over the glass. Her mom had been so pretty, so sure of herself. So happy taking care of her family and her home.
“I hope I make you proud today, Momma,” she said quietly. When her parents were killed—and she was left a ward—the court had liquidated their assets to make her moveable life more manageable. Her only tangible legacy from her parents—beyond her blonde locks—was the trust fund that followed her from foster home to foster home, her father’s thesis study journals—which weren’t making much sense—and a miniature of a girl that looked like her, save for the hair and costume. Francine put the picture down and picked up the miniature. “Madeleine Adelais,” she said, running her thumb over the engraving on the silver frame.
She sighed heavily and her shoulders fell. How can I not know, at this point, that what I have been working for is what I want? Mother-number-four had always told her that she needed to work hard in school and get a business degree so she could make enough money to have the happiness she wanted. But she’d done those things, and still she felt…nothing.
She was still constantly struggling for something: a little more composure, a little more concentration, a little more time. There was so much missing from her past that the pieces of who she was floundered about, impossibly fractured and incapable of coexisting.
She glanced at the clock and her heart skipped. “Crap!” She scowled as she grabbed her cell phone, ebook reader, and the last journal in her father’s set and headed for the door. She passed a bookshelf full of the same classics that were on her reader and looked back to the mirror in the hallway one last time, bright from the reflection of all the white, barren walls, then grunted as she grabbed her briefcase and left.
She nodded at G.W. as he held the front door to the old building. He always stood tall and always had a smile. She loved that he seemed to be here only because he liked it.
“Good morning, Miss Larrabee,” he said.
“Good morning, G.W.,” she replied with a smile, juggling her accessories.
“You look lovely today.”
“Why thank you, G.W.”
“Of course, miss. I’ve a taxi waiting,” he said, then turned to open the car door.
“You’ve saved me once again.” She ducked into the back seat.
He winked. “Good luck today.”
She appreciated the way G.W. always thought ahead, paid attention to what she enjoyed and needed, and always knew when she was running late. He was the perfect replacement for a boyfriend: all the care and attention and none of the drama. Maybe I could add him to the list, she thought. Husband, children, dog, fish—and G.W. She smiled.
Francine gave directions to the driver, then was tossed across the backseat, dropping her reader, the journal, and the miniature on the seat as they sped away from the curb, the door not yet fully closed. Shit. She should have left that home.
She picked up the portrait carefully, inspecting the girl who gazed out from the frame. She looked so confident. There was something innately familiar about her, like she could see into her soul. “What is it you have to tell me, Madeleine?” she whispered.
The taxi darted through traffic and Francine swayed, throwing her arm out to steady herself. She shook off the reverie and called her assistant. “Julia, I forgot the meeting with my father’s thesis advisor about this notebook. Could you call him to reschedule? I need to speak with him. The assumptions appear to be based in fact, but—well, you saw how preposterous they are.” She paused, listening.
The journals detailed a time-shift within an unnamed lineage. It developed a theory that certain people within the family were born at the wrong time, and the universe was endeavoring to return them to the age when they should have lived. Or, more precisely, to whom they should have lived with. She’d grown up thinking her father was a brilliant anthropologist, but the journals made him sound like a loon.
Francine had shared them with her assistant at the firm since she was the closest Francine had to a friend. She laughed at her assistant’s snarky response. “Thank you, really, like what we need to do here is make fun of the dead.” She ran a thumb over the miniature again. “No doubt my father is living in the shoes of some ancestor in the middle ages. It was his favorite era for research, after all.” She smiled. “Yes, yes, I’m on my way, I just—well you know. Please call the professor and—”
The taxi lurched to the left around a corner, then was brought to a screeching halt before it could crash into an overturned delivery van. Francine jolted forward against the safety glass, her phone dropping to the floor as she was thrown back on the seat like a rag doll.
As she shook off the confusion she could feel hands on her body, but she couldn’t see. She strained to open her eyes, but they wouldn’t cooperate. There were sounds of fabric tearing and people screaming. She tried to touch her face, but someone grabbed her hand and yelled for someone else to hold her down. She struggled and her head flew back, hitting the ground hard. Then everything went dark.
When she came around she was gasping desperately for air. She heard rushing footsteps and a rather loud stomping. Women screamed, men commanded and—horses? We weren’t close to the 16th Street Mall, were we? She clutched her hands instinctively, but both the miniature and her phone were gone. Francine tried again to focus her eyes, but they deceived her. Instead of the city, she saw a picturesque countryside, a pair of horses rearing, and a man with bright green eyes and thick, dark hair spilling into his face as he leaned over her.
“No!” he yelled.
She heard fabric tearing and felt an intense pressure around her ribs, then suddenly air rushed to her lungs and she was arching into him with a powerful breath. “What the hell is this?” she asked, her voice rasping with pain. She frowned and reached up to her throat; the sound had barely come out.
He shook his head. “Gentry! Smyth!” The man’s baritone rumbled deeply as he shouted. Her eyes went wide when he lifted her against his hard chest, and she latched onto his lapels as her vision spun against the thundering in her temple. She tried to stay lucid but lost the battle as she felt, more than heard, the man’s voice commanding those around him.