Chronological Order of the short stories
Copyright 2021 by Cassie Swindon
All rights reserved.
No part of this story may be produced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Cover Design by Anna Cackler
This work is fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, cities, or events are entirely fictional.
How did I get into this mess—again? This douchebag is just like Dad.
I recoiled from Darnell’s atrocious kiss and gagged a little at the lingering taste of cheeseburger chunks. The fast-food bags littering his old car floor stuck to my boot and a rotten smell drifted up, viciously attacking me from all angles.
Grabbing my purse first, I quickly bolted into the warm night, then slammed the rusty car door shut. How Darnell even owned one of those ancient gas-fueled vehicles was beyond me. I didn’t think there were any left. He did always seem interested in vintage crap.
“Kyra!” Darnell jumped out after me. “What the hell, babe?”
I stomped toward the grand entrance of ‘The Crooked Chateau,’ where Grandpa’s funeral procession formed a train across the narrow cobblestone street. Without bothering to turn, I yelled over my shoulder, “I told you to stop calling me babe!”
“Come back, I know you’re horny.”
“Go to hell, Darnell!”
“Ky!’ Quick, athletic footsteps jogged behind, then matched my fast strides. “Babe, I know you’re upset about your Gramps dying and all, but no need to take it out on me.” His rough, large hand tugged my elbow, right on my new feather tattoo.
A strand of the bright red lock twisted in my brown hair shielded my view for just a beat as I jerked away from his hold. “Let go!” I dug my heavy boot into his foot.
He lunged back. “Ouch! Damn it, Ky.”
“Don’t touch me, oh and I hated my grandfather. If you ever listened, you’d know that.”
“Cool off, babe, then come over at midnight. But not before that, you know how Crane is.”
My cheeks flamed hot and my heart pounded faster than I could beat my drumsticks. “Get out of my face, Darnell! I’m not coming over. We’re done!”
Relatives dressed in all black stopped across the street and stared at my flailing arms. But, I didn’t give a damn. “You’re a low-life, dead beat, lazy-ass! I’m done.” I shooed him with one hand, the intensity of my movements made three of my twelve rings fly off and roll down the street.
His jaw tightened. “Whatever, I don’t have to deal with this.”
“And you’re a lousy lay.”
The roar of Darnell’s old engine sputtered to life and zoom away behind me. I crossed my fingers in hopes that I’d never see that bastard again.
“What’s she doing now?” My sister Hallie’s comforting voice whispered from the proud stairway leading to The Crooked Chateau’s entrance. I shouldn’t have been able to hear her since she was too far away, but I shook off the thought and dug in my purse for my e-watch.
“Auntie?” Landon’s sweet, eight-year-old voice rang in my ears as if he were standing right next to me.
I turned around fast and squinted through the mass of mourners in black to see him waving from afar, holding my sister’s hand. Also, too far away. Weird.
Autumn leaves crunched underfoot. I parted the sea of mourning souls congregating outside the castle with the most unique architecture I’d ever seen. After a deep inhale, my gaze climbed the flame-like structure, wide at the base with a slick, curved, sloping exterior that seemed to reach the moon with its pointed tip. The sleek red metal of The Crooked Chateau matched the fiery streaks in my hair. What a strange place for a funeral reception.
Someone bumped into my shoulder, probably some long-lost cousin but I pushed forward towards Hallie and Landon.
“Well, that boyfriend lasted the longest, eh? Six months is a new record?” Hallie smirked.
“Hello to you too,” I matched her smile as I wrapped my arms around my older sister. Her flowery perfume always reminded me of Mom, they used the same brand.
“I’m surprised you came.”
“I’m only here for one reason.”
She groaned and started up the herd. “Don’t get started on Grandma’s necklace again.”
“Now that Grandpa’s dead, I can finally find it.”
“You mean steal it?” Her eyes narrowed.
I lifted my eyebrows in that way she would recognize from our childhood games and shrugged.
Landon tugged my oversized black shirt-dress.
I squatted to his level, careful not to accidentally rub my skin on his since my nephew’s autism came with specific sensory stimulation preferences. “Yeah, buddy?”
He pulled out a keychain of his laminated picture communication system and pointed to a bed, then at the crowd.
I shook my head. “No, buddy. Grandpa is dead. It’s not the same thing as sleeping, remember?”
“Remember?” He repeated absently, eyes fixated on another world, invisible to the rest of us.
Hallie also crouched and began slowly re-explaining what we had told him yesterday, as Landon fiddled with his sensory toy in one hand and stared at the stars. A soft whistle echoed in my ears from the darkness. It didn’t sound like a bird. Standing, I tried to push aside the hum and chatter of extended family swarming around and focused intently. A sharp whistle flew again. The pitch was deep—a man’s voice. But how would I know that? Creepy shivers spidered up my spine. Something felt weird, like a siren calling my name into the abyss. Those tequila shots after my band’s show last night must still be messing with my head.
Another one of Landon’s adorable tugs pulled me down. “Auntie.”
I looked down at my nephew’s big blue eyes. “What is it, buddy?”
“Buddy,” Landon repeated, then flipped through his dozens of cards again and pointed to a dog.
“No, bud. This building doesn’t allow animals.”
“Animal,” he repeated, then turned and pointed to the darkness, maybe where there was a forest, I couldn’t tell. He pointed to the dog image again. I glanced at Hallie, needing back-up and an easy translation, but she was chatting with our aunt, giving fake condolences for the loss of the stubborn, arrogant man who had been Grandpa.
I followed Landon’s finger towards the unknown and heard that whistle again. A breeze tickled my cheek and sent my long brown hair flapping, sticking against my lipstick. It was like the wind was trying to talk to me, whisper a secret to my soul. A landmine of goosebumps formed as I croaked out, “Uh, let’s go inside, Landon.”
“Landon. Landon. Landon.” He rocked back and forth, tapping his fingers along his sensory toy.
Hallie turned away from her conversation and took Landon’s hand. Miraculously, he didn’t pull away this time. I’d have to ask her when he started allowing her to touch him. He walked on his tip-toes, as usual, as my sister led us through the castle’s threshold into a grand foyer.
“Why do you think it’s called The Crooked Chateau?” she asked over her shoulder.
“Maybe the floor is slanted.”
The castle’s lobby served as an art museum of sorts. Blasts of scorching reds and oranges paintings were framed and hung, each at a crooked angle.
“Well, there’s our answer.” I tilted my head, interpreting the shape of one as fireworks exploding. After I blinked, its shape shifted into a tree trunk with jutting branches.
Tucking a strand of red hair behind my ear, I whispered, “I have to find it.”
Hallie’s soft touch brushed my skin as her thick eyebrows crumpled. “Find what?”
Hallie sighed loudly. “Kyra … that necklace means nothing. I don’t even know why you want it so much.”
“Grandma told me on her death-bed she needed me to take it, and that Grinch took the only piece I had left from her, just to spite me. I want what belongs to me.”
“This isn’t the time or place for that. We can’t upset mom.”
At the mention of her name, my sight darted to the spiral staircase in the middle of the lobby where mom was descending like a ghost in a long, black sweeping dress. Her soft, sky-blue eyes glistened with unshed tears as various aunts, uncles and neighbors nodded to her as she passed. How could she be upset from the loss of the man who deserved an earlier death? But wait. From the way she now looked at me and lowered her chin, I swear Mom held some caged secret. What would she have to hide? Did she know about the necklace? Tonight, I’d need to sweet talk that mystery out of her, so the answers would slide off Mom’s honey lip-gloss straight into my pocket.
A symphony song started projecting through hidden speakers and Landon waved his arms in the air like conducting an orchestra. Goddess, I loved that kid, a musically inclined genius. Surprisingly, the crowd didn’t trip on Mom’s long black train as all the people faded down the elaborate hallway into a ballroom. In the newly open space, Landon began running in giant circles and spinning around like helicopter blades with his arms out wide.
Mom’s arms extended around Hallie. “I’m glad Grandma left us first. She had a few less years to deal with his chaos.”
“Mom, do you know where Grandma’s necklace is?” I wrapped an arm around her thin waist.
She barely moved a muscle, but I heard the audible gulp of her swallow. “Yes.”
My heart raced as I studied her face. “Really? Why didn’t you tell me last night?”
I could hear her teeth grinding together. “I just found out this morning, when your father showed up.”
Hallie and I gasped at the same time and my sister’s fingernails dug into my wrist. “Dad is here?”
I wasn’t even sure if I asked the question or Hallie, but the words strangled the three of us, hovering in the air like a trap. After I had made a mockery of him years ago, he wouldn’t give me an easy death with a gun. He probably had a wire cutter or maybe a fork to stab me to pieces—something to entertain him. There was no way of telling how long we all stood there frozen as Landon played blissfully, unaware of the sudden threat now baring down on us all.
I grabbed Mom’s shaking hand, squeezing tightly.
“It’ll be okay, girls. There’s lots of people around, your father won’t try anything. Just don’t go anywhere alone with him.”
Mom held back tears while she rubbed my arrow tattoo along my forearm. Now it became clear that she wasn’t crying earlier because her own father had passed, but from the arrival of a different menacing male. In fact, when was the last time I had a positive relationship with any male? Maybe I could cast some magical button or spell that would erase men from existence.
Hallie called Landon over with a strange shriek to her voice. With his sweet nature, Landon could never turn out like the other men in our family. Impossible. He couldn’t become a controlling monster.
Hallie pulled Mom toward the full room. “Come on, we should stay where there are witnesses.”
I remained back, eyeing the spiral staircase rising endlessly. My family’s footsteps faded as a soft thumping of base from above beckoned, so I stalked toward the stairs— another stupid choice by yours truly, Kyra Kozelski, adventurer extraordinaire. A faint creak from a corner jolted me into a jump and the sound of fast panting battered against my ears. I checked behind me. No one. Empty lobby. Was I imagining sounds? I could’ve sworn I heard something.
A tingling crept up my skin, so I turned the flashlight on my watch as I started to scale the steep stairs. Each thunk of my boot up matched the steady beat of the percussion playing above. Soon, I hit the third floor, but somehow the drone of the funeral wake below didn’t seem to change in volume. Maybe this building had atypical acoustics. The beam of light from my watch danced and darted up two stairs at a time, my breathing turned heavy.
For some reason, I had a gut feeling to keep moving. So, I followed the music. Higher. Higher. Louder. Louder.
My lungs burned and my legs cramped. Light taps sounded below, like nails clinking against the metal stairway. Or a belt buckle clacking softly. Was someone following me? I sped up. The beat of my heart rammed like my drumming, faster and faster, paired with my footsteps. Faster. Spiraling in a steep circle, losing my focus. The floor far below spun and the artwork on the walls telescoped in and out of focus like an orange mirage.
I sucked in air and let my muscles burn as I sprinted higher. Sweat dripped off my temple. The faster tapping drew me closer. Was my father chasing me? The thrumming turned wild and I could barely breathe until it finally broke off into silence. I glanced around.
I was alone.
My trembling hand latched onto the railing, and I tiptoed up to the top floor. Straining, I listened for whoever was following me. Nothing. That didn’t matter, I slipped through the shadows, into a dark hallway of four doors, trying to keep my boots light. Two doors on the left, two on the right.
Hovering my hand over the first doorknob, I filled my lungs and clenched my teeth, wincing as I wiggled the knob. Locked. Damn it. I released the breath I didn’t realize I had been holding.
My ears perked up. The panting sound returned. What the hell? I ran to the second door, slipping halfway, and catapulted into the wall. Pain ripped through my shoulder as it smacked into the corner of a painting.
“Hello?” An unfamiliar baritone voice called from the darkness behind. So my attacker wasn’t my father—this time. Lucky me.
Flames of fear scalded my skin as I fumbled for that second door. But as I pushed forward, it jammed. The bottom scraped so loudly across the floor I would bet my best drum that the entire room full of mourners below had heard that. I shoved myself through the opening, grateful that all those kickboxing classes paid for a fit waist.
“Wait!” The man’s voice called but I jerked the wooden door shut and clicked the lock in place.
Blood boiling with determination, I slowly backed up into the depths of wherever I was, waiting for the intruder to burst through the door. I needed a potential escape. A giant fire roared inside a stone fireplace. In the middle of a log, a cup of liquid bubbled over the top, popping and sizzling into the flames. Someone had been here only moments ago.
Along the wall sat a giant hot tub with steam rising high, ready for a dip. The heat clung to my pores, and I fanned myself. I drew open the curtains, opened the window to the evening breeze and flicked on a ceiling lamp. Sinking to the ground near the window, I stared at the inky night sky.
“Stupid. Stupid, Kyra.” I palmed my forehead and talked to myself, “Someone probably lives here and maintains this castle. That guy in the hall is probably calling the cops.”
The panting sounds returned as the lights began to flicker.
The hair on my arms stood on end. “Dad? It’s just me.” I couldn’t stop my voice from shaking.
Light clicks and tapping sounds grew louder. I grabbed the drumsticks from my purse and pointed them out straight. Something huffed and slurped, then soft fur ran into my leg. I collapsed to the ground. A sloppy tongue licked my whole face. After failing to shield myself from this random pup, I couldn’t help but laugh at the memory of Landon pointing to his picture of a dog. I guess even a kid with autism knew more than me.
“Chocolate?” That deep voice from the hallway was carved from raw, carnal masculinity. “Come here, girl.”
I rubbed a hand through her brown fur. “Well, Mr. Sexy Voice doesn’t need to know that you’re helping me for a while, does he?”
Her wet snout snuggled against my compass tattoo as her tail wagged and whipped all over. Sighing, I brushed the dirt off my oversized shirt. The light above flickered off completely, but the moon still slanted through the window. I had absolutely no reason to think that Grandma’s necklace was in this peculiar sauna-fireplace room, but every instinct in my gut told me to stay put. So, for once, I listened.
The flames crackled and the dog moseyed in the direction of the flickers, resting her nose on the hearth. My outfit swayed against my thigh as I followed and plopped down near the heat. A surge of energy tickled my body.
Quickly, I lunged away from the chimney and gaped at the fire. “What the Flames was that?”
Chocolate whined and continually fixated on the embers floating, then disappearing. I had only imagined the sensation. Everything was fine. Maybe Darnell put weed in the cheeseburger or —there had to be some explanation.
Creeping closer again, I trailed my fingertip along Chocolate’s spine, all the way up to her forehead. Bracing myself for the same sensation, I held my breath as I moved towards the flames. This time, a tingling sensation brushed over the ends of each hair of my body, like a microscopic spark of heatwaves surrounded every inch of my skin. Hesitantly, I reached forward, my fingertips almost longing for the touch of the fire, like a mad woman. This was it. I had officially gone insane.
I spun on my heels to meet the icy eyes of my father. How did he get in there? My fists naturally tightened into balls at my side and my stance widened. Unfortunately, he blocked any access to the door. A breeze blew in from the window, reminding me of an exit option. I’d die from the fall, but that might be better than what he had in mind. Especially with how things ended the last time we stood face to face years ago.
Dad cocked his head. “You’re looking in the wrong place.”
Chocolate growled and flared her sharp canines, but good-ole-Daddeo didn’t pause or acknowledge her existence.
I inched toward the window, trying to act casual, but he could easily decipher all my expressions. Chocolate stayed right by my side, keeping herself between me and my greatest enemy. Whoever owned this animal was a lucky guy. Maybe I should yell out for help. But, what if the stranger happened to work for my angelic father? I reached for my watch and pressed a few buttons. No signal to make a call. Damn, the only time it didn’t work.
“So, how’s your band?” Dad mirrored my steps, letting his eyes roam to my chest.
I held back a gag. “Great, our singer misses you. She talks about you all the time and wishes she hired a lawyer.”
The way he laughed was like nails on a chalkboard. “You sure didn’t get your sense of humor from your mother.”
I froze, slicing my nails deep into my palms to keep myself from lurching out and choking him to death. Not that I could. But, whatever. A girl could dream.
“Ah, you two are still close? She didn’t have much to say about you when I visited her this morning. Not that we did much talking, if you know what I—”
And suddenly, I found myself driving my head into his stomach and wrapping my purse’s strap around his neck. He tossed me off like flicking a bug from his shoulder and rocketed me onto the floor.
Dad clicked his tongue and basically hissed the insult, “I thought your kickboxing would make you stronger than that.”
I felt my jaw drop but used every ounce of energy left to act casual as I lifted myself. He had been following me. Shit. What else did he know?
“I know you want the necklace.” His wicked grin snaked up his face and his predatory stalk crept like a leopard. “But why do you want it?”
Chocolate barked loudly right when I slowly stuck one foot through the window.
“Hold on, girl. Where are you?” A man’s voice asked from down the hall.
Something about the stranger’s tone sent warmth searing through my stomach. I shouldn’t have been able to hear that, yet it was crystal clear despite the crackle of the fire, the bubbles of the hot tub and the rush of the wind flapping against my ear. Dad didn’t seem to notice the man in the hall at all—and he always had a knack of observing everything.
I snapped back to reality when a tight grip latched around my wrist. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” Dad thrust me fully back inside and slammed the window shut. I flew to the fireplace, heat rising along my back, making my shirt stick to my skin. Claustrophobia took over, making my heart spasm in my chest. No way out.
Dad reached into his suit pocket, all formal for Grandpa’s funeral. But I knew he wouldn’t care if he spilled blood on it, in fact he probably preferred it there. I sucked in a breath, waiting for whatever weapon he was about to pull out from his pocket.
Instead, he pulled out the necklace.
The mysterious drumming returned and slammed hard in my ears when I stared at it dangling in front of me, like the sound came from the ruby inside. Damn it. He had been holding it the whole time. The red shone bright as it twisted on its golden chain and the reflection of the fire bounced off the sharp edges.
“You don’t even know what the necklace does.” With a smirk, he tossed Grandma’s precious gem through the air and into the fire.
My arm sliced through the flame and caught the necklace before it hit the coals. Explosive energy consumed me. I flinched and pulled my uninjured arm out. Not a scratch. No burn. No redness. Dad’s jaw dropped and he was cemented to the floor. Chocolate started barking fiercely. A second could have passed or minutes. I couldn’t have been sure as we were locked in a stare off. Father and daughter experiencing the unbelievable. The impossible.
Somehow far off, yet so near, I could hear mumbling and footsteps. I might have even heard the fast heartbeats of someone else, someone from the hall. But nothing seemed real anymore. What the hell was happening to me?
Then, a loud banging thudded against the wooden door. “Chocolate?”
Dad pivoted fast, pulling a gun from a hidden holster, and pointed it straight at the door. The pounding continued as I rammed the necklace into a zipper of my purse and flung myself towards the window.
“Get back here!” Dad yelled, but he kept his weapon trained on the door.
A loud bang erupted from Dad’s gun. But I couldn’t wait around to see if he was shooting at me or Chocolate’s owner. Swinging out seven stories high amid the chaos of barks, I clutched to the edge of a rim that wrapped around the sleek, metallic exterior.
Just keep moving.
Out of sight, I could hear frantic barking. Heavy grunting. More gunshots. A man’s scream. I froze and waited.
“Chocolate?” My chest rose and fell fast, hoping to see the pup’s snout peek out from the window or another bark. “Chocolate?” My voice sounded foreign in the night air.
Pleading that a gust of wind wouldn’t knock me off the siding, I slowly changed direction and shuffled back to the window. If it was my night to die and if my fate was to perish by the hand of my father, then fine. I’d rather die saving Chocolate, than running in fear. I forced my right foot to scoot closer. Left foot. Each finger accumulated so much sweat, it would only be moments until I lost my grip and fell. Maybe I wouldn’t last long enough for my father to kill me off. The drop would do it.
My calves twitched and shook as I finally made it back to the window and crawled inside. Despite trying to stay standing, I slumped to the floor, my arms shaking intensely. An utter lack of sounds surrounded me. No panting. No grunting. No voices.
The fire had died out, but for some reason the sound of crackles twisted inside of my body, a part of my soul. Crawling for answers, I reached forward, and my hand slid into something sticky and wet. I whipped my hand away and held it to the moonlight. Blood coated my fingertips. No. No. Dad had killed someone innocent–Chocolate’s owner. I continually swept the room with my watch flashlight looking for Chocolate. I had to be sure, unable to leave the poor pup if she was injured in the corner somewhere. The light landed on the lumped body. My heart stopped and I leaned forward. It wasn’t the stranger.
Dad was dead.
Three bullet holes were lodged in his forehead and his glassy blue eyes were frozen as ice on the ceiling. A shock of relief left my gut in large sobs.
“Thank you. Thank you.” My head dropped to the floor, and I allowed myself the joy of never having to worry about Hallie and Mom’s safety again. I kicked Dad’s side and noticed little pawprints soaked in blood, making a path straight out the open door and down the hallway. I marched out, searching for Chocolate and his master, but around the corner, the pawprints vanished.
After wiping my hand on the underside of my long black shirt, I patted the pocket that held Grandma’s necklace and descended the spiral staircase. At the sixth floor, another blaze of relief washed over me that Dad would no longer track us. My legs shook from shock, most likely, but I trudged along.
At the fourth floor, a speech from the wake reception below was amplified, and I could hear every syllable like someone was speaking next to me. As I reached the third floor, Dad’s question echoed in my mind, ‘You don’t even know what the necklace does.”
“What does the necklace do?” My brain races and whirls at the second floor. “How the hell did my arm move through fire without getting burnt?”
And at the first floor, I finally froze and wondered again where Chocolate had disappeared to. Or more importantly, where my father’s murderer and my savior had run off to? The mysterious Mr. Sexy Voice might just in fact be my very ruin because maybe he was the only man on Earth who deserved to live. I knew what I needed to do.
Blurb of “Scorched,” the first book in the Linked Trilogy
Published estimate date January 2023
Rage and fury pounded a chaotic beat in my chest. So, I wished for all men to disappear. Don’t worry, they deserved it. Little did I know, that I held Magik that turned my thoughts into reality. Poof, males vanished. Except for one—Jadox—stubborn, quiet, protective, and not at all striking or delicious. In order to learn my new powers, I had to rely on him and figure out how to return my nephew somehow.
Forced to run with Jadox to his homeland in Draven not only led me to a cave dwelling demon, but also shoved me into a ridiculous prophesy that I was some chosen-one, destinated to Link to save their entire village. No pressure or anything, but I’d never Link or have anything to do with another male again—even if Jadox truly was the last man on the planet.
Kyra—breathtaking, strong, independent, and a pain in my ass. I needed her family heirloom to protect our village. But then she scorched half the population and society erupted to chaos. Now, I need her to Link before Isaac finds her—another powerful Mystier with his own agenda, though, Kyra believed me as her only option.
Lying to this woman wasn’t so damn hard until she wedged her way under my skin and into my heart. We didn’t see eye-to-eye, but our intense connection was a force out of our control. Regardless, only one of us was bound to succeed.