“I was really surprised over the direction the author took in this book but it was a better story for it. I really like her style of writing as well. It flows.”
“I just cannot get enough of KC Klein’s writing. I love her voice so much and these dystopians are just as good as her sci-fi standalone that I loved, The Space Captain’s Courtesan. Love-love-love.”Amazon Reviewer
In the darkest of hours there’s always reason to hope…
Lake has gotten the life she never dared dreamed of—a safe haven, and the love of a good man, her husband, Hudson Land. But Lake’s hard-won happiness doesn’t last long when powerful Elders lay siege on Black Creek Manor in retaliation for her past defiance. As Lake watches everything she loves go up in flames, she sacrifices herself to keep her family alive, never imagining it’s not her life that’s in danger, but the heart and soul of who she is.
Hudson wakes from a head wound to find his whole world is reduced to ashes. With no memory of why he’s sacrificed everything for a woman whose name is tattooed on his chest, Hudson is determined to make his heart match the emptiness of his mind, wiping out everything except the hatred for those who are to blame—the Elders and the wife he sought to protect.
As evil and fear spread across a war-torn land, can Hudson and Lake forgive each other’s betrayals and grab at their one chance at saving not only their lives… but their love as well?
“The whole world’s on fire, Lakie.”
And it was.
Lake walked over to her brother, Vonn, and peered through the stone, cut-out window at the view that desolated her soul and sapped the strength from her limbs. Fire burned the night, blocking out the stars while thick billows of smoke rose to the pale, gray, sky-like heaven-ward prayers. Except they weren’t her prayers. Or if they were, they weren’t the ones being answered because all their plans had failed. Every. Single. One.
Was the thudding from her heart or from somewhere else? It was getting harder and harder to piece together realities when her whole world was a nightmare.
She turned to watch the door rattle against the frame as the iron bar across the jam continued to hold. The Elders were close, in her house, right outside her bedroom. It wouldn’t be long now. The ramming log they made would make quick work of the solid wood that stood between them and their enemies.
Hudson, her husband, fell to his knees before her. Blood caked his face. One ear hung by torn skin. His shirt covered in the gore of enemies and friends alike. His sword, dulled and red, propped up by his side. Exhaustion weighed heavy on him. It had settled into his features, hung along the downturn of his mouth, in the hollowness of his eyes. He’d fought so valiantly. They all had, and yet, all their plans had come to nothing. They’d been outnumbered and out supplied.
Lake turned her attention back to her brother’s slight, eight-year-old frame, standing on tip-toes on a stool, white hair shimmering from the light of the flames that was burning their home to the ground. She stroked his ruffled hair back in place, her nails black-rimmed with soot and dried blood. She brushed some fallen ash from his blonde curls, wishing she could brush the next terrifying moments away as easily.
“You scared. Lakie?” Vonn asked, his big blue eyes wide against a drawn face that used to be rosy and full from days spent working outside the farm.
“Not anymore, baby. Not anymore.” And she wasn’t. All her scared had been used up the day her husband’s men had sounded the alarm. The day the Elders had set a two-week siege against Hudson’s house and farm. The day Syon had come.
The livestock never had a chance. The Elders had set fire to the barn and fields first. Their men had held their own for a little while. Hudson’s home was an old fortress built out of stone and brick, a perfect stronghold in a land of thatched huts and wood cabins.
But even stone could be destroyed.
The earth rocked with each rhythmic pound, not unlike the loud thud of her heart.
Lake reached out to comfort her husband of six short months, but the exhaustion of a two week, day and night, battle had her hand dropping to her side. There was no point. Hudson was beyond any comfort she could give. They all were.
“It won’t be long now, Lake.” He said, his shoulders drooping with fatigue and defeat.
And it wouldn’t. The wolves were at the door. There was no escape. So much death. All their men had died. Most of the servants too, if they hadn’t run away at the first sign of the Elders. She hoped most of them had made it past the open fields and into the partial cover of the tree line.
“When they come,” Hudson said, his voice bringing her back to the present, “I’ll make my last stand.”
His words lost their power as he rested his head on the upright sword looking as if he was swearing fealty or praying. She preferred neither.
Lake looked up and watched small licks of flames dance on the wood beams above. Most of the room was built of stone, unable to burn, but stone grew hot, and she wondered if they would die by the Elders’ hands or by being cooked alive.
As much as she hated the Elders, she’d prefer the sword any day over fire and flames.
“You and Vonn should make your way into the crawl space under the bed.” Hudson was talking again. Sometimes it was hard to pay attention. She’d been up for so many days that she’d started to drift off while still on her feet. “Remember how I showed you to close the door from the inside? I’ll hold them off as long as I can.”
Fresh blood seeped from the blow to his head, running into his eye. He wiped the red sweat off, his stomach laboring in and out as he gasped for air. She wondered if he was in pain or was he beyond all that now? She was.
She rubbed at the week-old wound at her shoulder. Even though Hudson hadn’t let her into the thick of the battle, she’d still fought. One Elder had made it past their guards and caught her in the hall.
It hadn’t been pretty. An Elder’s skill with a sword was well known. But she wasn’t without her tricks. She’d fought for her family’s life before, and she had no regrets about doing it again. There’d been a thrust, an aim right for her belly. An instinct found in new mothers-to-be had her twisting her body to block. Her shoulder had caught the brunt. But it wasn’t for nothing. He’d been left open, and a quick upper cut with her knife had the Elder gutted like a newly snared squirrel.
She hadn’t felt a moment of remorse, not when her family was concerned. Killing had gotten way too easy for her. Too bad she wasn’t better at it.
Despair held her in its grip and squeezed. There was no way she could fight. She flexed her sword hand, watched as her fingers stretched wide and then back into a fist, but she couldn’t feel a thing from her shoulder down. Must’ve severed the nerve. That or she was in shock.
“What are we going to do, Lakie?” Vonn stood, trying to be brave with a small six-inch knife in his hand. A scared but determined look in his eyes. A look that no boy of eight should ever have. A look that eviscerated her.
And it was all because of her. Her new home burned to the ground, her husband half dead at her feet, her brother never seeing age nine, her unborn child never taking its first breath. She’d told Hudson the Elders would come back for revenge. She’d told him that everyone she loved ended up dead. Told him not to care, not to do the honorable thing and stand by her side.
He hadn’t listened, and the Elders had come back. Not for her specifically, but for the formula to the microbiotics, the wonder medicine that cured disease, and when taken in mass amounts reversed aging. The word was out. Immortality was available, and she was the key to getting it.
If that was all they’d wanted she would’ve happily given them the formula—screw the Rebellion— but Hudson hadn’t been willing to surrender. She had. Even had a note sent to the Elders. And that’s when she’d found out about Syon, the leader of this small but powerful renegade group.
Drunk on the possibility of immortality and power-hungry enough to believe he’d get it, Syon refused all surrender terms. He wanted her, wanted the formula, and wanted to make sure no one would be coming after her.
That was when Lake knew this was the beginning of the end.
And the end was here. Time to tell Hudson what she’d planned to do the moment they’d barricaded themselves in the bedroom. None of the other plans had worked. This one might not also, but she had to try.
She kneeled before her husband, taking a moment to imprint his scent in her memory, the one underneath the blood and sweat, the one that was uniquely him. Her palm cradled his cheek slicked with blood. They’d already said their good-byes. Already apologized, kissed, and whispered they loved each other. There was nothing left to say. Except…
“No, I’m not going to let it end like this. Not like this. There’s another way.”
Hudson turned his face and kissed her palm. The jam on the door splintered. It said a lot that no one jumped at the loud crack. How many more rams? One? Ten?
His brown eyes were warm. The same color as soft leaves in autumn. The color of the rich soil that had been their life, the color of safety and love. The color she’d hoped her unborn child would have.
“I don’t regret it, you know. I don’t regret the day I bought you from the auction. The day I unknowingly took home a Rebel spy and you tried to kill me.” He laughed at the memory. Funny what seemed amusing now. “I don’t regret any of it.”
She couldn’t cry. All her tears had dried up days ago. But she could regret. Wished she’d been beheaded on that auction block. Never met Hudson and caused him such pain. Never found a new purpose for her life. Maybe one could out-run fate, but not for long.
“I’m the one they want. Take Vonn. Hide under the bed. I’ll make them believe that you both are dead. But if I hide, they will kill you, and I’ll be captured anyway.”
Hudson laughed. He threw his head back and laughed. Red filled his mouth and colored his teeth. The sound chilled her more than the pounding on the door and the crackle of flames from above.
“After all this, you think I’m going to hide under the bed and watch them take you? After all this, you still don’t trust me to care for you until the end? I promised to protect you with my life, and just because the end came quicker than I’d have liked, doesn’t make my promise any less.”
He stood. Wiped his blade on his pant leg. “When I go, I plan on taking as many of those hooded cowards with me as possible.”
She knew Hudson would put up a fight. Expected nothing less. But now was not the time for bravery. She had to choose her words carefully. She had only one chance to convince him. One chance to keep him and Vonn alive.
She reached up, cupped his cheeks with her hands, and looked straight into his eyes. She needed him to see how sure she was. How right. “No, my love, this is not how this will go down. You’ve fought. You’ve fought bravely. But each of us has our own load and this one is not yours to bear—it’s mine. Do this for me. For Vonn. For a chance.”
She turned to Vonn. “Go under the bed. Find the false door and climb inside.”
“Are you coming?”
She shook her head, but couldn’t form the word. “Hudson will be right behind you. Hurry.”
She sighed with relief as she watched Vonn scramble under the huge four poster frame. When she’d first seen Hudson’s room, she remembered thinking the bed was fit for a king—she looked back at her husband—she’d no idea how right she’d been.
There was a hardening in Hudson’s features, and she knew he hadn’t been convinced yet. “What kind of man do you take me for? I am no coward to hide behind a woman or a little boy. You are my wife. Only when I’m dead will they be able to get to you.”
What she didn’t tell him was that death had been hanging over his head for a week. He’d lost so much blood and the wound to his head… She had no idea how he was still standing. She set her own jaw. Her heart found a pace she hadn’t felt for days. Fear flooded her system and with it the energy to drag him, if needed, to see reason.
“You brave fool.” She shook him as much as she dared. “Listen to me, this is the only way. They won’t stop until they have me. If I’m not found, they will run you through and search this room until they do. But if you hide—no, listen—if you hide with Vonn, maybe God will smile on us, and maybe they’ll believe you’re dead. And then…” She took a breath almost too afraid to speak the words. What she wanted was for him to hide, stay alive, forget about her, and go on with his life. What she wanted was for him to take care of Vonn, find happiness, and rebuild his life. But this was not the time to fight a battle she would lose. This time she had to win. “And then you can come after me.”
She let the words sink in and saw when they registered in his eyes. Her husband knew the count, just as she did. He’d seen all the death and destruction around them. He knew what followed when the bedroom door broke. This was their only hope.
His breath came in gasps, and he swallowed hard as honor got stuck on the way down. “I will find you.”
She nodded. Of course he would. She believed him. She wasn’t one to trust easily, but over the short time they’d been together he’d found a way into her heart. He’d painstakingly built her trust with soft spoken words and the steadfastness of promises kept.
Hudson tunneled his fingers through her hair and pulled her face a mere inch from his. His eyes burned with the same intensity as the flames above. “Don’t give up. Don’t you give up on us. This will work. Trust me, Lake. I will come for you.”
His lips came down on hers in a brutal kiss, making more of his promise than his words, then he dropped down and dragged himself under the bed.
Lake stood alone in the center of the room. Fire from above, enemies to her front, and waited. There was a stilled moment where the crackle of flames and the long pause of the ramming log was all she could hear. When her body shook, and she forgot how to breathe. A moment when her courage faltered, when fear threatened her resolve. I don’t want to die.
Then her time was up, and the massive door splintered apart.
Bits of oak flew across the room. She didn’t even have the time to raise her sword. Not that it mattered, she couldn’t even feel the hilt as it slipped through her fingers and echoed against the stone floor.
Men in brown homespun robes surrounded her. Some still obscured within their deep hoods, but most had thrown off their anonymity. Didn’t really matter, she was the only witness.
“Keep her alive,” said the older man who had stepped in front. Lake knew who he was even though this was the closest she’d been to him since the siege began. His face was thinner than she’d thought. When looking at him through the binoculars his brown robe had given him sustenance. She wondered if he padded the shoulders. His long, thin hair grew in a circle around his head leaving the top bald. His dark eyes were deep set, his lips red and thin. Lake wondered how much of his appearance was genetic, and how much was the evil in his heart taking its toll.
Younger men secured her on each side. Her wrists were bound. A leather leash around her throat.
“Where is your husband?” Syon’s face was calm as if he hadn’t ordered over a hundred men, women, and children to be killed.
“Where are the bodies?”
Her heart beat in her chest. So much depended on them believing her. She licked her dry lips. “I’ll show you.”
She walked forward, waiting for the man on the other end of her leash to follow. She brought them down the hall and to a short flight of stairs. At the top, she nodded for one of the men to open the door. The room had been a place where they’d stored dry goods and extra food. One night the storeroom had caught fire. The gardener and the stable boy had tried to put it out to save their dwindling food supply, but had burned to death instead.
There in the middle of the charred room were two bodies charred beyond recognition.
“Your brother also?”
“All dead except you?”
“All except me.”
“Good. Then no one will be coming after you.”
If only that was so. Hudson would be better off without her. They both would. Better if they would just forget about her, stay safe, and live their lives without the black cloud of destruction she seemed to bring to everyone who was unfortunate enough to love her.
But Lake knew her husband. He had followed her before—once across a desert plain, and once into the midst of an Elder’s raid. So Lake knew Hudson would come for her. He would come, or he would die trying.