Harlan Westminster turned away from the afternoon sun. His shadow cut across the pristine white stone path snaking through the park and shot like an arrow across the manicured green grass. A gust shook the pines lining the walk. His grip on the stroller tightened and Belle’s infant son stirred.
“Your daughters are doing remarkably well in their classes.” The middle-aged woman hand-pressed her spotless green shirt and smoothed the bright fabric over her round hips.
The woman was a teacher. Someone solely devoted to explaining to others how to read, add and write. Only in Dark Hope could such a miracle exist. In the bowl of Earth constituting the park, brown needles pelted Harlan’s shoulders and arms from the cathedral of branches arching overhead. He picked one off his homespun tunic and rolled it between his fingers. It crumbled under his touch.
“I’m so glad. I taught them what I know, but it isn’t much.” Mirabelle, Harlan’s sister, smiled down at her five and three-year old daughters tugging on her arms. The worry lines creasing her forehead eased.
No, he and his sister hadn’t had much schooling. Not in the Outlands where they’d been born, where Hell had come to Earth in the form of cannibal ‘Viders who’d destroyed everyone and everything they’d known.
And the main ‘Vider pack still roamed the Outlands.
Somewhere beyond the cradle of towering mountains, the ‘Viders skulked ever closer to this paradise.
A fact the people of Dark Hope seemed oblivious to.
“You’ve done very well. Most Outlander children don’t know their letters when they arrive. I have no doubt, your children will catch up to our native children within the year.” The teacher stooped and picked a red and black round bug off the grass. It walked across her fingers as she presented it to Cat, Harlan’s oldest niece. “Do you remember what this is?”
Cat’s green eyes narrowed. She held out her small hand. The insect crawled onto her fingertip before flying away. “It’s a lady bug, right?”
The teacher grinned. “It is indeed. The smallest of creatures are the most important and most vulnerable. Without them, we wouldn’t be here.”
“Then I’ll take care of it.” Cat pulled out of her mother’s grip and dashed after the speck flitting under the canopy.
Biting his lip to keep from calling her back, Harlan stuffed his hands in his pockets. The little girl would be safe here. For now. In all the stored Dark Hopian knowledge lay the solution to the ‘Vider problem. It had to be there. God knew his arrows hadn’t made a dent in the cannibals numbers during the ten years it had taken him to rescue his sister and her offspring.
Mirabelle picked up her youngest daughter, who rested her head against her mother’s shoulder and closed her eyes. “In our adult classes, the teachers talk about how fragile the world has become. It is hard to believe these tall trees are fragile.”
Adult classes. While Mirabelle had taken modules on reading and writing, Harlan had been at the Security Center having his ass whooped by the peace-loving folks of Dark Hope. Their nonlethal methods served them well in this place. But in the Outlands, only death ensured the enemy’s defeat.
“The pines are perhaps the most fragile.” The teacher gestured to the netting of needles littering the ground. “They’re the first to be affected by the radiation.”
Radiation—an invisible force the Dark Hopians feared more than the ‘Viders. This radiation couldn’t possibly result in a violent, agonizing death like the cannibals delivered. Harlan’s gaze darted to the middle-aged woman. Still, this teacher and others like her were the answer to so many prayers. He wiggled his fingers. Smooth metal links trickled over his pads.
He pulled the chain from his pocket. When he offered the chain, its gold medallion caught the sunlight before swinging wildly from the length. “Please accept this as payment for all you’ve done for my sister and her family.”
The teacher’s brown eyes landed on the necklace before skittering away. She paled. “Oh, no. No, I couldn’t possibly.”
The chain bit into his fingers, cutting off the circulation. Right, these Dark Hopians didn’t value gold. Didn’t value any of the skills that he’d needed to keep himself alive in the Outlands all the years he’d spent alone.
“Payment isn’t necessary.” The teacher sidled away from the necklace. Yet kept it in her peripheral vision, as if afraid it would attack her. “I am very honored to be able to teach. I don’t need anything else.”
Harlan sighed. The ‘Viders didn’t value gold. The Dark Hopians didn’t value gold. Someone kept changing the rules of the game.
“I’ll see you tomorrow in class.” Stirring needles in her wake, the teacher hustled away.
With her free hand, Mirabelle latched onto his forearm. “I can’t believe you have gold. Real gold. At least I don’t have to worry about you ending up alone. You have a dowry to bribe some woman into taking your ugly hide.”
“I think I’ll do alright.” Harlan’s gaze trekked up the hill, where Serendipity Tahoma talked to a handful of women. Sera. Her soft name matched her soft skin and tender heart. A precious commodity that needed protecting.
And since he didn’t have anything better to do…
Sera waggled her eyebrows.
He winked back.
Belle squeezed his arm. “You’re facing some pretty stiff competition there, brother. And I doubt you have that much gold.”
“Sera doesn’t want my gold.” Harlan tucked the necklace into his pocket. His fingers immediate sought another charm. Warm metal bumped against his hand. His fingers slipped around the dolphin, stroked the arched back and bent fins.
“No, Sera’s people value knowledge and heritage and manners.” Belle bit her lip. Red tinging her cheeks, she stared over his shoulder. “Given how important Sera is, I doubt they would take all the gold you could acquire in a lifetime for her. Even if they sold their women.”
Princess Peaches. Harlan smiled at the memory of Sera’s offense when he’d first used the nickname. Now she just rolled her eyes and shook her head.
He was growing on her.
Sera’s peach colored outfit stood out among the other’s bright red, greens and blues. A knot of honey-colored hair clung to the curve of her neck. Catching his eye, she widened her smile before holding out her sleeve for the ladies to admire the embroidery on her cuff.
Belle rested her head against his shoulder. “I love you, Harry, but maybe you should look for someone among our own kind.”
Maybe, but he wouldn’t. Sera gave him tunnel vision
Just like he’d had when rescuing his sister from the ‘Viders.
He’d won then, he’d win now.
Belle snapped her fingers in front of his nose. “Harry? Hello? Earth to Harry?”
Harlan focused on his sister. “Do you know humans once walked on the moon?”
Belle blinked. “What?”
“Sometimes the hardest thing is the most worthwhile.” He tugged out the dolphin charm and held it out to his sister. “Besides I have the Westminster good luck charm.”
“Oh.” Her mouth opened and closed. “You have the family wedding dowry.”
“I found it when I buried…” He swallowed the lump in his throat. Images of the pieces that he’d found of his mother and father burned his retinas until his eyes watered to put out the flames. He squeezed the tears from his eyes before facing his sister.
“I miss them so much. Do you, Harry?”
“Every damn day.” But things were a little better now.
Sniffling, Belle wiped her nose on her sleeve then cleared her throat. “Well, with the family good-luck charm, you’ll definitely win her heart.”
He curled his fingers around the necklace. The token had brought his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents unending love. Surely as the last surviving Westminster male, he was entitled to the legacy.
“And I’ll help.” Belle straightened her tunic. “She gave me a list of books she loves for me to read. If you read them, then you’ll have something to talk about.”
Books? Read? Him? Had his sister lost her ever-loving mind? Unless those books were manuals on self-defense or battle strategies, he wanted no part of them.
Cat skipped back, munching on a headless gingerbread man.
Belle sucked in a deep breath. “Catherine North Westminster! That had better not be a cookie I see you eating. We have not eaten lunch yet.”
Cat stopped mid-chew and swallowed. She looked at the bitten cookie then at her mother. “Um.”
“Give it.” Harlan held out his hand.
“Sorry, Mom, but I’m hungry.” Cat dropped the cookie into his palm just as Belle started her lecture.
Biting its arm off, Harlan pushed the stroller up the hill. Flavorful spices rolled around his tongue, none he could name. A cookie wouldn’t spoil his appetite. Maybe nothing would.
Sera thumped the picnic basket against her leg. “Yes, Ms. McAdams, I believe you should submit that suggestion and have everyone vote on adding a few streams.”
“It can serve as a hatchery, an education module and recreation for those who wish to fish, and…” Ms. McAdams inhaled so deeply her mammoth breasts strained against her tunic.
Harlan watched to see if the hawk-faced woman’s zipper would hold and bit off a leg.
“Harlan.” Sera cleared her throat and glared at him.
The four women swayed on their feet as if torn between protecting Sera and moving away from him.
He swallowed the bite in his mouth and swept his tongue over his teeth for crumbs before speaking. He had some manners. They’d just been dormant for a decade.
“Ladies.” He waved the remains of the cookie at Sera. Reaching the top of the hill, he set the brake on the stroller. “Sorry to interrupt but we’re getting a little hungry. Do you want me to take the basket and get everything set up while you finish your conversation?”
Ms. McAdams peered down her hooked nose at the sleeping baby. “Yours?”
Her three shadows aped her actions.
“Mine.” Harlan stretched the canopy open, blocking the woman’s view of his nephew.
Sera’s brown eyes narrowed, and she pressed her lips together for a moment. “No, I think these good ladies have just to implement their idea. No farther consultation is necessary.”
Bird woman and her three chickadees didn’t move.
Sera sighed, “I am frightfully hungry.”
“Oh!” Ms. McAdams bounced on the balls of her feet. A brooch with the entwined letters D and S jiggled on her massive chest. “Oh, yes, dear. We didn’t mean to keep you. As one who shares your lineage, I understand how time consuming orientating newcomers can be. But duty calls.”
This woman had about as much in common with Sera as an orangutan. He liked the orangutan better as it lived on the other side of town. Harlan kicked off the brake and pushed the stroller forward.
It smacked into McAdams’s thick ankle and she yelped.
“Sorry.” Harlan peeled his lips back over his teeth. “Where I come from, we don’t have wheels.”
“Well, I never.” McAdams and her trio of twittering women flounced toward the city in the valley.
Green grass and huge trees divided the rings of Dark Hope. From the outside in, he noted the circular buildings housing indoor farms, the square living complexes, then the rectangular public spaces with the central dome in the bull’s eye. Sunlight glittered along the dark surfaces banding the buildings and rooftops. Solar powered the city. White scoops atop each building connected everything via invisible streams of data.
In the distance, dirigibles bobbed on the breeze like oval jelly-fish. People puttered along the ivory sidewalks in clothes the colors of the rainbow.
The people had so much… to lose.
Sera turned her head and coughed. When she uncovered her mouth, she was grinning. “You don’t have wheels where you come from?”
He shook the cookie at her. “You’re just lucky I’m housebroken. Imagine how embarrassing that would be at your mother’s gala event tonight.”
God, he almost wished he wasn’t housebroken. At least, then he’d have a reason not to show.
“We won’t be here much longer. We have a traitor to catch and bad guys with guns to stop before they attack Dark Hope.” Sera snatched the cookie from his hand and stuffed it into her mouth. Shoving the lump to the side, she chewed. “I am starving. What took you so long? Didn’t you see the signals I was sending?”
“Yep.” He rocked back on his heels. “I didn’t think you had it in you to flirt with so many others around, Peaches.”
“I wasn’t flirting.” Shaking her head, she brushed the crumbs off his coarse shirt. “I was trying to get your attention.”
Touching him was a sure way to do it. Hell, he could think of lots of others, but not when they had an audience. “Next time just touch your blouse zipper. I’ll be there before it moves an inch.”
“Uh-huh.” Clasping the tab, she tugged. Bit by bit, she pulled it down.
He rose onto his toes and stared at the slowly parting fabric. Pink and cream skin with dusky shadow of cleavage. Tempting. Just like on the fruit.. “Half an inch?”
“We’re not negotiating.” She jerked the tab up and closed the fabric almost to her throat.
“There are words for that kinda behavior in the Outlands.” But it usually cost him extra. He rubbed the tattoos covering the scars on his throat and neck.
“Flirt?” She smiled.
“Unhappy breeder.” The women in the cribs always wanted a man to buy her way out of the program. The idiot that tried always ended up broke or dead. Sometimes both.
Sera elbowed him in his stomach. “Why did I invited you along?”
He rubbed the sting from his gut. If he didn’t answer correctly, he might find himself flung over her shoulder and sliding down the hill. Just as he opened his mouth to reply, a deep horn blared.
Two more blasts followed.
In the city below, people stopped in the streets.
Harlan cupped Sera’s elbow and gripped the stroller with his free hand. His nephew squawked and mewled.
Mirabelle raced toward them, her daughters jogging at her sides. “Again? How many of these alarms do you have per day?”
A storm cloud blocked out the sun.
Then the alarm fell silent.