“A sexy read. KC is A gritty, yet seductive novel with a unique visualization of the plight of women in society. Fast paced, well written characters, and great storyline make this a MUST read! Loved it! author to watch.”Amazon Reviewer
““Well written, author Klein knows that words are her tools, and she wields her tools well.“Amazon Reviewer
In the darkest of times, love still shines through…
On a harsh future Earth where corruption rules and women are few, cold realist Hudson Land must purchase a wife to comply with the Elders’ laws and save his farm. Instead of an auction, he witnesses the start of an execution. With his first look at a beautiful woman in years, Hudson knows he has to have her–no matter the cost.
Lake, a chemist and a rebel fighter, is resigned to her death, but when some back-hill farmer rescues her from the chopping block she has no intention of simply becoming his wife. She’s pledged her life to the Rebellion and being bought for some stranger’s bed doesn’t change a thing, even if his soft caresses are damn distracting.
As lies and secrets build between them, can they trust each other enough to stand against the two warring factions in a world where only the strong survive?
Hudson couldn’t decide which was worse, the stench of the rotting heads on the wooden spikes or the flies that buzzed around his face and tickled his nose. He made a swipe at the filthy insects—definitely the flies then. A hot breeze blew in from the east, kicking up the red dust and carrying the stink of decomposing flesh his way. He breathed through his mouth. Nope, had to be the scent.
An old man, bent over and with one shoulder higher than the other, shuffled into him. With a reflex sharpened from years of base-born survival, Hudson had his ax off his back and blade connecting to the protruding bone on the man’s wrist.
“Release the pouch, old man, or the hand comes with it.”
The man’s twisted digits unfurled. Hudson pushed him away, but was careful not to knock him down. In a crowd this size, a man that age might not get back up. Hudson strung the pouch around his neck and tucked his life savings under his shirt. An execution always drew an audience, and an audience always had its share of thieves looking for an easy mark. Things must be desperate if the pick pockets thought him easy.
Hudson stretched to his full height and peered over to where the crowd was the thickest. An execution block had been set up in the middle of Portal City, severed heads decorated the tall, spear-like poles along the back. Other than a few dirty children, there were only men for as far as he could see. And all were here for the same purpose he was—to buy a wife. Twice a year, the prisons were emptied, and any person with enough gold could buy a wife or a laborer. Except he’d been late, his horse had thrown a shoe, and the auctions of the female prisoners were over. The only thing left now was the execution.
Today, the crowd was more rabid than usual. Hudson had heard the whispers that floated on the stench of unwashed bodies and excrement. Woman…Beautiful woman…Beheading.
If there were truth in those words, then this would be the first female execution since he’d been a child—thirty some odd years ago. Women could get away with murder—most had. With only the rich able to afford a wife and the stillborn rate of female babies on the rise, women were a commodity and everybody wanted one.
Hudson hated Portal City. It was no coincidence that the stronghold of the Elders’ power was in the worst cesspool of humanity. Wanted and starving men alike lurked behind every shanty hut waiting to escape to the one place Elder law didn’t reach—Dark Planet. Not that Dark Planet was much better, but at least a man could get a decent meal if he was willing to join the Rebellion and fight the alien monsters that lived there. But Hudson wasn’t wanted or starving, and since Elder law stated only married men could hold land, this cesspool of humanity was Hudson’s best chance of getting a wife.
Another body, layered with equal parts dirt and whiskey, jostled him. Hudson jostled him back, glad to be head and shoulders above most of the men. A murmur rustled through the crowd, and the black crows that feasted off the rotting heads flapped their wings in response. A solemn Elder in a long black robe appeared on the platform, an official document in hand—the Judge. The Executioner came next, his face lost in the deep hollow of his hood, a powerful ax in both hands.
The prisoner was last. The whispers of woman were true, but those of beautiful were not. Two steely men secured her by each arm. Her hands were bound at her back, face wild in a mass of tangled hair. A hush settled over the men as the Elder in black stepped up and addressed the crowd.
“By the power invested in me by the Global Community and The Way, I sentence this prisoner to death by beheading. She’s been heard and found guilty by the judicial Elders for the crime of murdering her newborn infant.”
An anguished “no” sounded in the silence. Her husband? At least someone would weep at her passing. Hudson guessed a crazed wife was better than a dead one. The Path knew he would take a little crazy to get a woman fat with his child. He maneuvered himself closer to the platform to determine if the woman was worth saving. Her hair was marked with wide bands of white. Her eyes were dark and sunken deep into a papery face. Grooves emphasized the hard line of her mouth. Not many good breeding years left, if any at all. With the cost of survival high, there was no room for charity. Everyone had to pull their own weight. It was a shame when a woman grew past childbearing age that she ceased to be useful. But he didn’t make the rules, he just survived them. To Hudson, it was better to have a quick death than a slow one of starvation.
Apparently the convicted didn’t agree. “Mercy! Mercy! I didn’t kill my baby girl. I swear it.”
Ahh. A female infant, even worse.
“Mercy!” she pleaded as she struggled with the two brown robed guards.
The men for once stood silent. No one wanted to make a noise and accidentally be saddled with the “blood price.” It was customary for the convicted to beseech the crowd for mercy. Anyone could grant it—if they could afford the hefty fee.
Not a sound. Even the anguished protester from before couldn’t afford to run his mouth off. Having enough of her pleas, one guard struck her leg, which quickly brought her to her knees. The crowd grew excited, and Hudson found himself pushed against the side of the stage. He was so close that he could see the woman’s lips quiver as she mouthed… a prayer? A confession? Her soul was someone else’s problem, not his.
The other robed figure stepped up, knife in hand. With a strong fist, he secured her hair and pulled her face flush with the large oak stump—aka chopping block. A quick slice with the blade and a red line rose bright against the grimy skin on the back of her neck.
She’d been marked then. A target for the Executioner, so his aim could be true.
The woman’s murmurs pitched to high wails. Hudson briefly looked away when the hooded man stepped up and raised his ax for the death blow. There was a slight whistling as the blade rent the air with its downward strike. A dull sound as the ax found its purchase in the oak underneath. The heavy thud as the head dropped to the ground.
A scrawny boy with oily hair quickly snatched up the body part and, with a few sly maneuvers, was lost in the crowd. Hudson knew a peek at today’s souvenir was a good trade for a shiny penny or a hard crust of bread.
Only a half-hearted applause burst forth from the crowd, who under normal conditions were a blood thirsty lot. Today, though a beheading was always entertaining, the theatrics of the Elders left much to be desired. Should’ve dragged it out more. Given them a better show.
Hudson turned to go, his blood lust nowhere near that of the men around him. He had seen enough death to last him a lifetime during the Global War. Though he’d been too young to fight, he hadn’t been too young to bury the dead. He’d come to purchase a wife and save his farm. Not witness a beheading.
It wasn’t the audible gasp of the crowd that had Hudson turning to get a look at the next prisoner brought for execution. No, the crowd was made up of hard men, lonely and desperate for drama of any kind. It was the slacked mouth, wide-eyed expression on a skinny youth, too jaded and abused to be awed easily, that had Hudson stopping in his tracks and craning his head.
Then he saw her. The rational part of Hudson’s mind knew the woman who stood between the two guards was a convicted criminal. But she looked more like a fallen angel than a dangerous prisoner.
Unlike the previous woman, this one held her petite frame to its full height. Long hair, so pale it looked white in the sun, tangled about her head. She seemed unaffected as the fine strands danced around her face and caught on her lips. If her hair skimmed across his skin, he wouldn’t have been nearly as immune. Her eyes were the dark blue of the ocean, but with none of its depth—dead and flat, they reminded him of the broad side of a neglected sword or the dullness of a skipping stone.
This one hadn’t needed to be dragged to her fate. She had walked up herself—chin high, expression accepting, as if already dead. There would be no begging for life or shouts of innocence. But that didn’t matter; the crowd had already decided. Words of “mercy” rippled through the throng, soft at first, then with more heat. The men were of one mind. They would beg for her. Every man, young and old, had one thought—save her, take her. A beauty like this was a rarity, and shouldn’t be wasted on an ax and a stump.
A face that could launch a thousand ships—or incite a hundred men.
They were all seduced, Hudson included, by the thin dingy gown that billowed and flattened against her body, showing the rounded globes beneath, then a teasing peek of a darkened shadow at the juncture of her legs.
Hudson had no plan. No idea of what he meant to do, but doing nothing wasn’t an option. He was not alone in his thinking. The men turned mob screamed “mercy” as they rushed the stage. The few guards placed to control the crowd suddenly had their hands full. The two guards securing the prisoner looked at each other, then to the Judge, apprehension in their eyes. The black robed figure shook his head in answer to their unspoken question. The protocol would hold. Only the prisoner could beseech the crowd.
To Hudson, the world narrowed to shades of black and white, with bursts of color. The ripple of the dingy gown as the woman was brought to her knees. The wave of pale white hair as it fell across the oak, bloodied and red.
“By the power invested in me…”
Hudson elbowed a man in the face as he tried to hold his position. The man next to him tried to use the guard’s shoulder to launch himself up on the platform. He got a sword through his middle.
“She has been heard and found guilty…”
The slash of a knife. A slow spread of red on the back of the woman’s neck. The thin crimson line, loud in the subdued world of darks and whites.
A guard stepped in front of Hudson and raised his sword.
Hudson slashed with his ax and relieved the man of his weapon…and his arm. Both fell to the ground.
“Convicted of the crime of owning and using a personal computer.”
Hudson paused. Computer? A civilian owning electronic equipment broke the anti-tech laws. This could only mean one thing—Revolutionist. She was involved with the Rebellion and the Rebellion was trouble. She could cost him his farm. He looked down at the dead solider in front of him—maybe already had. He stepped away from the body and let the mob do what it does best—consume the evidence.
Not worth it. Hudson stepped back, lowered his ax. He’d find another wife. Maybe not one as pretty, but a person couldn’t survive on pretty. A person could survive on a farm—his farm.
The Executioner’s ax raised high and paused mid-air.
“Halt! It is unlawful to execute a pregnant woman. This prisoner carries my child!”
The ax fell…but slower and to his side.
Hudson took a breath. There was a slight easing in his chest at the knowledge that the woman wouldn’t die. Pregnancy was an automatic acquittal. He glanced around the crowd, looking for the poor bastard who would be saddled with more trouble than any one person could handle. Except, all the men were staring back at him. And the tightening in his chest returned, along with the drowning realization that he was the poor bastard.
“Is this all of it?” asked the hunched man who sat across from Hudson. In the dank hut, only the lantern and a small banked fire allowed Hudson to make out the older man’s features. A bald and sun-speckled head told him that the Elder had spent some time outside this hut; only the girth spilling over the sides of his chair spoke of how long ago that was.
The Elder fingered the gold coins that were Hudson’s life savings. Correction, gold that had been his, now it belonged to the Elders. Damn leeches.
The bald man’s squinty eyes finally broke off his visual fondle of the gold and met Hudson’s. He nodded, not trusting himself to speak. If he opened his mouth, he might just tell this fat, greedy man what he thought of his “blood price.”
“Well,” the skin below the man’s neck jiggled as he talked, “I guess I’ll let you slide some and consider this enough for the fee.”
He hoped so, since what the man held amounted to over fifteen years of hard work and some crafty maneuvering.
“But I have a problem.” The Elder opened one of the ledgers that were stacked high to the side. Finding the page, he traveled his stubby finger down the columns. “I can’t seem to find the entry of your marriage to the prisoner…”
Both the Elder and Hudson knew damn well the prisoner was unmarried. So he waited with a tightening of his stomach for the rest of the sentence.
“Impregnating an unmarried woman carries its own fee.” The man looked up, his eyes almost swallowed by the plumpness of his face. “I assume you are going to rectify that today. But…of course, there is also the marriage fee.”
Hudson gripped the sides of his chair to keep his hands from drawing his sword and putting it through the Elder’s turkey-like neck.
“But I understand that times are tough and gold is hard to come by. I see here,” he closed and opened another ledger, “that you own a farm. I think it would be fair to offer a lien against the land as payment.”
Hudson felt his upper lip twitch. The irony wasn’t lost on him that there was a lien against his land for not having a wife, and now a lien was placed for having a wife. It wasn’t worth it. The farm had been in the family for over four generations. Yet, if he didn’t marry, he’d be endangering his home just the same. Still there had to be another way. One that didn’t cost so much.
The door to the hut opened. Two young men in short robes escorted the woman prisoner into the hut. Hudson couldn’t help himself. The woman drew his gaze like lightening to a parched forest. This was the closest he’d been to a woman who wasn’t a relative, and never one this young.
Her face was unlined and smooth like fallen snow he’d seen in the mountains. Her hair was still wild and fell in long unruly strands down her shoulders. He’d never seen hair that color. The silky mass reminded him of the story his mother use to tell him of a white dove and virgin bride. The thought of a virgin bride, hell any type of bride, heated his blood, and other parts of his anatomy.
The dead-blue of her eyes hadn’t changed though, and he wondered if she even possessed the sense of sight. Didn’t matter, he’d made his decision when he’d let her keep that pretty little head of hers.
The Elder across from him cleared his throat. “So are we in agreement as to the total fees and the lien?”
He didn’t take his gaze off the woman. And why should he? He had his fill of ugly men, and her ethereal beauty had a way of making the weight of his debt feel lighter. Her gown was thin and dirty, and if he looked hard enough, he could see the shadowed circles on each breast. He swallowed. Don’t do it. Show some respect. But he was just a man and let his gaze travel lower. Her dignity was saved by her clasped hands and chained wrists.
“Yes.” The word rumbled in his chest.
“Yes? Yes to the lien?” The Elder sounded surprised. Hudson was also; it was a lot of money. Then he noticed the guards on either side of the prisoner, or more specifically the hands of the guards. He noticed how large and thick their fingers were as they grasped the flesh of her upper arms. How fingernails caked with dirt and knuckles sprinkled with hair seemed grotesque and cruel as they bit into the softest of skin—or at least it looked soft. And his own hands tightened…tightened with the need to do violence.
“Yes to the lien. And yes to having your men unhand my wife.”
* * *
They rode along the dirt road in silence. The wagon and the woman next to him were the only two things Hudson owned outright; even the plow horse pulling them was entailed with the farm. The wo— his wife hadn’t spoken a word, even when it had been her turn to say the vows. She’d just stared off into nothing. In the end, the Elder had just shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. The vows are just a formality. You’ve paid the bride price. She’s yours to do with what you will. I’ll send a Marker out in three days’ time, and then it will be official.”
That had been enough for him. He had her out of the hut, and up on his wagon before the old man could come up with any other “fees” to place on his head. But now in the quiet of the afternoon, with a strange woman sitting next to him, he couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable. This woman was something foreign, odd. She didn’t fit into his world. He had no idea what to do with a woman, well, other than get her pregnant.
Did she require anything special for her upkeep? He gave her a nervous glance. Hell, could she even see? She must. She’d stepped up into the wagon with no problem. Could she talk? He pondered that thought. The Path would never be that kind. Would it?
He knew women could talk. His own mother had, for one. She’d nagged, ridiculed, and complained until he’d fantasized about cutting off his ears…or her tongue. But his mother had been dead for some time, and now after a year of silence, he’d come to like the quiet. Maybe his wife was waiting for him to speak first? His gaze rested on the iron manacles around her wrists. “I have the tools at home to take those off.”
The truth was he’d purposely “forgotten” to ask for the keys. She was a convicted criminal after all. She was probably a violent person, and he liked the idea of her being more manageable, at least while they were riding home alone.
The wife made no response, just stared straight ahead, her body swaying to the motion of the wagon.
Maybe she was deaf also. Hudson had a deaf horse once. The mare had plowed the field just fine. He swallowed, then tried again.
“My name is Hudson Black Creek Land because I own a farm.” He was an idiot. His last name was obvious since only men who owned property could take the last name of Land. “Do you have a name?”
“Can you talk?”
Nothing, just the annoying swaying.
Hudson looked back toward the road and shrugged. This marriage thing didn’t seem to be too hard. In fact, she didn’t seem to be much trouble at all. He released a breath he hadn’t even realized he’d been holding. He rolled his shoulders a bit, suddenly tired. The early morning journey and “wife buying” had taken its toll. He went to pat her knee, but stopped awkwardly mid-air—still too nervous to actually touch her. He lowered his hand, and instead flashed her a reassuring smile. “I have a good feeling about this marriage thing. I think you’ll work out just fine.”
* * *
Air! Air! He couldn’t breathe. He was drowning. No, not drowning—choking! Someone was trying to kill him.
Hudson clawed at the chain around his neck, but his fingers couldn’t get underneath the bite of the metal. He twisted and turned, trying to break free, but it was of no use, his attacker was strong. Time was running out. His vision narrowed as empty voids gathered along the edges. Through the small hole of light, he could still make out the rear end of his horse, the reins that had fallen forward, the wooden bench he sat on. Had he fallen asleep? Must have. There was no other way an attacker could’ve taken him by surprise.
A fire blazed where his lungs had once been. Strange, animal-like sounds escaped from his throat. He clawed at his flesh, trying to make room. He could feel the attacker struggle against his back as he pulled from a lower angle. Smaller than? Hudson was tall, and even in a world of men, he was usually head and shoulders above most. He hoped this time wasn’t an exception.
He gave up the fight with the chain itself and reached behind him. He found the attacker’s hands and clapped down with a pit-bull grip. His head spun. The roar in his ears grew louder. With the last burst of energy before he fell into the darkness, he threw all his power into his legs and stood. The metal links crushed his throat. He countered it by pulling the attacker’s hands hard over his head. The smaller frame crashed at him from behind. The chain loosened.
That was enough. He drew the chain forward and slipped under the noose. He wrapped his one hand around the links and pulled. His attacker flew forward across the bench. He freed his ax. His arm swung high. Rage filled his veins along with the steadiness a man needed to kill. He swung—white hair, shackled wrists, a crusted wound from the Executioner’s mark—the woman! He shifted his aim. The ax head found its home in the wagon’s bench. The wood split in half with a clean break.
For the second time in one day, his wife had almost lost her head.
His wife, his wife, had just tried to kill him! Sharp breath cooled the flames in his lungs as another fire started in his gut. With disgust, he yanked on her arm. In reality, he meant to pull her to standing. Instead, he overestimated his strength…and underestimated her weight. In a flurry of white hair and soiled gown, she went flying out of the wagon and landed on her backside with a loud humph.
In shock, Hudson stilled. His plow horse, being a good plow horse, had stopped moving the wagon forward. Everyone and everything around them stopped, except her…his wife. She was up and on her feet, sprinting like a rabbit being chased by a wolf.
Really? Really! Did she think she could run away from him? Did she think he would let her?
He jumped out of the wagon and started to hunt her down as if she really was a rabbit and he really was a very hungry, very angry wolf.
Hudson would’ve laughed if his throat hadn’t felt like he’d swallowed a burning coal. She was an idiot if she thought she could run from him. He’d follow her through the Portal if he had too. There was way too much riding on that white head of hers for him to let her go.
It didn’t take long. He tackled her legs. They both went down. She rolled and tried to kick him. He caught her foot an inch from his face. In a quick move, he had her under him, legs pinned, hands above her head—her chained wrists now a hindrance to her instead of a weapon.
He took a second to catch his breath, rage choking him almost as effectively as her chained wrists had earlier. “Rule number one. Don’t kill your husband, especially when he is still reeling from the cost of buying you.”
She didn’t respond, but her eyes had lost that dead, far-away look. Now they shot blue flames of hate. He should’ve never wished the dull, complacent look away.
If a man had tried to kill him, there would’ve been no hesitation. He’d put a sword through a man’s belly for less. But there were reasons why he couldn’t kill her. There had to be. All he needed was to remember just one.
That was one. Well, he’d keep her alive, but it didn’t mean he had to keep her happy. She could be kept chained to his bed for all he cared.
“Tell me why or else I’ll start chopping off body parts until you do.” He hadn’t sunk to a killer of women yet, but she didn’t have to know that. Maybe his father had been right, a little fear goes a long way in a successful marriage.
“You have to let me leave.”
It was the first time he had heard her speak. Her voice was a bit raspy, deeper than he’d expected from one so small. It reminded him of cold, clear nights and hushed whispers behind closed doors. And damn, it was sexy, and…focus. He lifted her chain and slammed her wrists on the ground for emphasis. “I just spent my life savings and half my land to buy you. You’re not going anywhere.”
“Then I’ll never stop breaking rule number one,” she spat out.
“Well, that will make what I have to do a lot harder.”
“Which is what?”
“Get you pregnant.”
Her face blanched, and he allowed himself a wicked smile. He could tell she was thinking the worst. Good, by The Path, she deserved it. But that wasn’t the worst. He could do better. “And I have every intention of keeping you chained to my bed to accomplish it.”