Prince of Demons, Knights of Black Swan
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR…
After Dallas finance manager, Atalanta Ravin, was left standing at the altar in a publicly humiliating jilting, she quit her job, sold her house, gave away her furniture, and set off in search of a new life living on a boat in Boston Harbor. She got the adventure she’d always secretly longed for, but not in a thousand dreams could she ever have imagined that fate would lead her to her fantasy lover or that he might turn out to be a prince of demons.
CHAPTER ONE EXCERPT
When she was left standing at the highly polished altar of Saint Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in a four thousand dollar dress facing everyone who had ever meant anything to her, she decided Stuart Pruitt was easily the biggest asshole in the universe. Atalanta Ravin spent the next three weeks sitting in ice cream-stained yoga pants and a holey tee shirt, staring straight ahead while two sisters and her best friend tried to convince her that, even if he was easily the biggest asshole in the known universe, life wasn’t over. Not really.
For weeks, she’d been riding a sugar overdose that left her unable to sleep at the time she needed the escape of sleep more than ever before in her life. And it was showing.
“You look like shit, Lana,” Dizzy summed it up unapologetically.
“And why would I care?”
Dizzy had been her friend since they’d been college freshmen and learned that they had both been assigned to dorm rooms with certifiably sociopathic roommates. At the end of the first semester, they scored a room they could share together and had pretty much shared everything but boyfriends since then.
Dizzy was loyal to a fault, a trait highly prized in a best friend. Unfortunately, at least in that case it seemed unfortunate, she was also persistent to a fault.
“Lana, come out with us. You can’t just sit here in a puddle of Starcream and look like shit forever.”
“I can, Desdemona.” She used Dizzy’s birth certificate name knowing it would make her wince, hoping it might also make her give up and go. “Don’t you have something else to do? Go pester Robert. He’s got to be resenting the hell out of the time you’re spending over here trying to get me to do something I don’t want to do.”
“Exasperating, Lana. We can’t help you if you won’t let us.”
“I appreciate the effort, Dizzy, but I’m not going out. I need to spend some time processing. You know. On my own.”
Dizzy, the almost maid of honor, pulled back and stared at her for a full minute. It took even longer to push Dizzy away than it had to get rid of her younger sisters: twins who, like her, were named after figures from Greek mythology. They were responsible for the nickname, Lana, because they couldn’t quite manage Atalanta when they were babies.
They were fiery, freckled redheads named Nike and Nemesis. They’d tried sympathy as far as patience would carry, then turned to threats, vowing to abandon her to her Triple Pecan Crusted Rocky Java Chip Starcream until all that she would require from them was a selection of mumus.
With a sigh of resignation, Dizzy rose saying, “Okay. I actually get that. Call me when you want to talk. If I don’t hear from you by Tuesday…” She let that hang in the air and seemed to be mulling it over. “You know I never liked him. I always knew he was a prick.”
Lana spluttered. “Liar. You were crazy about him.”
“On the inside.” Dizzy looked indignant. “I hated him on the inside.”
“Whatever.” She waved a hand in the air and blew a half-hearted kiss, but Dizzy proceeded to prove that it would take more than a wave of dismissal and an air kiss to get rid of her. Lana had doubts that even the National Guard could deter Allision when she was on a mission.
Eventually Lana had stood in a warm shower not particularly caring about the water temperature, reluctantly pulled on clean clothes and let Dizzy comb out and blow her hair like she was a doll. When Dizzy was satisfied with the cleanup, she marched her prisoner out to Nike’s car where the twins waited and deposited Lana in the backseat
“Where are we going?”
“The Four Sixes.”
It was a chic urban bar on Turtle Creek in the heart of Dallas urban posh, named after one of the famous ranches of Texas. Dizzy’s rescue party never made it inside though.
Nem had started to reach for the big brass handle that was an eclectic cross between Southwest and art deco. The door opened before she touched it letting the muted sounds of thumping bass escape and touch everyone nearby with the vibration. Lana saw out of the corner of her eye that the people who emerged were a couple. He had his arm over her shoulder. They were laughing, nudging and leaning into each other.
What she didn’t notice, until she realized her companions had gone stone still, was that the male half of the happy couple was none other than Stuart. The other half was Lana’s very own goddamn administrative assistant, Stephanie. When the soon-to-be former employee registered that she’d come face to face with the ex, who was also her boss, she was suddenly much more interested in her shoes than in meeting Lana’s gaze.
Stuart nodded to the group in general then added a curt, “Excuse us,” as he placed a hand to the small of Stephanie’s back and gave her a little push to get her started in the right direction. The two of them had almost made it all the way to Stuart’s precious royal blue Audi before Lana’s brain reengaged. A red hot curtain of fury descended in front of her vision as all the missing pieces fell into place and her body took on an agenda of its own as surely as if it was possessed by a devil. With a quickness that would make a superhero proud, she whirled and began sprinting after them.
Stuart and his date had just reached the car, which he had parked himself because Stuart didn’t trust valet parkers. He’d pointed his key fob, been greeted by the car’s answering tweets. Stephanie’s face froze in silent horror when she saw the rundown coming, but Stuart had no warning. Lana didn’t slow the charge. The only adjustment she made was to put her hands out in front of her at the last second. The result was slamming into Stuart from behind with such force that his body was thrown into the side of the vehicle and his face bounced off the roof of his car. Hard. Hard enough to draw blood.
When he turned around and looked at Lana, the devil who had possessed her whooped with satisfaction on seeing reddened eyes and blood dripping down the front of a prissy custom made shirt. With cuff links. Christ. What a tool!
“What the fuck, Lana? I think you broke my nose.” He looked at the blood on his hand as he brought it away from his face and spat. “I should press charges.”
She gaped, but not for long. Stuart’s apparent disconnect with the trail of damage he’d left behind caused Lana’s fury to gel into a cold anger and even colder laughter.
“Press charges, Stuey? Unless you want a lawsuit to pay my family back for a wedding that cost as much as your average priced house, I’d rethink that threat. A hundred pounds of fucking shrimp, Stuey! That’s a lot of fucking shrimp. Fifty cases of Dom Perignon. Shall I go on? Or maybe I’ll just turn my cousins loose and let them take it out of your hide.”
She hoped her smile looked every bit as menacing as the images of revenge that were chilling her blood. He paled a little at the thought of the triplets who were Lana’s cousins. Yes. Multiple births ran in the family on her mother’s side.
Those boys, the McKesson triplets, were privileged, but that was just disposable package wrapping. They were descended from wildcatters who were, well, wild and probably carrying the genetic ancestry of horse thieves. Or worse. The family joked that attempts to reconstruct genealogy met a quick dead end because their forbearers had been one step ahead of the law when they’d come to America. They may have changed names again when they left some landing point on the Eastern seaboard and pushed west. One thing was sure. They weren’t carrying the genes of farmers.
Everybody in Dallas knew the McKesson name by reputation. Among other things, it was rumored that they preferred to settle disputes out of court. So to speak.
Atalanta always laughed it off when she heard those whisperings and said that people love to believe bigger than life stories. From her perspective, her cousins weren’t people to be feared. In her mind they were boys, ripe for teasing, who fumed if you tricked them at blind man’s bluff and ate unhealthy amounts of Bananas Foster if given half a chance. That didn’t stop her from using the rumors to her advantage though.
Lana turned her attention to the soon-to-be-pink-slipped admin. Only then did she recognize that the expression she’d become accustomed to seeing on Stephanie’s face was guilt. Lana had thought Stephie was having some kind of trouble. Maybe money. Maybe a boyfriend. As her boss it wasn’t up to her to ask.
Looked like it was a boyfriend problem after all.
The devil in Lana was roused to dancing in triumphant circles when she startled Stephie into taking a fearful stumble backward by doing nothing more than taking a step toward her.
Lana felt her sisters on either side of her, trying to pull her away. “Come on, sis. Everybody here knows who’s boss,” Nemesis had said. Lana glanced at her sisters just in time to see them throwing identical pointed glares at both Stuart and Stephanie.
Nobody said a word on the drive back to Lana’s house. Her girls were sensitive enough to know that there wasn’t a single word in the English language that would be better than the silence.
When she was finally alone – as she’d wanted to be in the first place, she thought bitterly, she let emotion overtake her. Tears pooled then gushed onto the pillow where she’d landed on her bed, curling into a ball as she fell. She cried freely for the first time, not so much because of two humiliations, a very public jilting and an excruciatingly embarrassing confrontation. Not even because of the high price tag of a wedding that was a nonstarter.
She cried because she hated herself for missing the fucker. He may not have been a great lay and he may not have had any character to speak of, but he’d been company for three years. Long enough to build every aspect of her life around him as if she’d gradually become remnants of personality circling his sun.
She reminded herself that, being perfectly honest, she needed to amend that. He’d been good company until the past six months when his job had become so demanding that he was either away or out late more often than not. He’d been too busy to take part in any of the wedding planning. “Whatever you want will be fine with me, Lana. You have good taste,” he’d said. She didn’t think much of the distancing at the time.
She woke up early the next day, still in her clothes, tangled in bed covers. She rose to go to the toilet then took a look in the bathroom mirror. Her eyes were almost swollen shut from going to sleep crying. She hated what she saw in the mirror and might have broken it if she wasn’t superstitious, the remnants of a heritage that couldn’t be documented, but could be substantiated as Scot-Irish. So instead of shattering the mirror, she came to a conclusion.
Sometime during all the hours of staring straight ahead, not really hearing what people were saying, she’d arrived at a point of absolute clarity. She needed a change. Not a small change. Not even a big change. A change of such monumental proportions it would effectively be hitting the reset button on her life.
She changed into plain pajama pants and a comfy well-worn tee, turned the ringer off on her phone, then sat down in front of the TV with a box of tissue and a grease-stained box of cold day-old extra pepperoni pizza. She chomped into one of the stiff slices thinking that one of the finer privileges of relationship mourning was punishing the body with bad food, alcohol, and no exercise while ignoring the domestic hallmarks of civilized living such as laundry, dishes, garbage control and personal hygiene.
Punching the remote she began going through channels one by one. Stuart had taken control of the remote when their relationship was still new and had never considered relinquishing it, not even on special occasions. He always went straight to the guide and picked out something he already knew he liked and wanted to see. Stuart liked what he called “tried and true”. He had his favorite restaurants and stuck with the same menu items. He had a morning routine, an evening routine, and a weekend routine that involved the same people, places, and things. No sense of adventure whatsoever.
Lana no longer needed to be concerned with Stuart and his damnable preferences. She was her own person. On her own. She would reject Stuart’s lack of adventure. She would channel surf all night if she felt like it! She punched the air with every flick of the remote button as if to say, “Take that, Stuey! I will yield the remote to no man ever again.”
Moving past a cooking show, a rerun of a seventies sitcom, something about criminal midgets who loved pit bulldogs, a home show, a black and white movie starring Tyrone Power, another cooking show, a thing with a boat, and a band of ferret-like creatures standing on their hind legs in a field of brown grass. Then she stopped and backed up two channels. It was the home show.
They were doing a series on alternate lifestyles and that particular installment featured a handsome bachelor who lived on his boat. She washed the mouthful of pizza back with a swig of tequila straight from the bottle and turned the volume up.
Twenty minutes later, by the time the show was over, she knew exactly what she was going to do. She was going to quit her job as portfolio manager for Gelz Leageman Capital and sell her bungalow. It wasn’t a Highland Park estate, but it was an eye-catching brick cottage in one of the posh Dallas park cities. It had been a great investment even if it was next to the noise of the north-south toll road that cut through the middle of the city.
She’d take the proceeds and move far, far away. To New England, where she would buy a boat. To live on.
For somebody who was not quite thirty, she’d done alright for herself. She’d stayed out of trouble, gotten good grades, and made her parents proud. In the process of living up to expectations, she’d accumulated enough net worth to be able to cash in a 401K and do nothing for a while until she decided to do something else. She had no memory of waking up without a goal to pursue. Hitting the reset button meant she would find out what it felt like to wake up without a plan. Maybe she’d do jigsaw puzzles until she got tired of them and then switch to crosswords. Maybe she’d watch every movie she’d wanted to see and hadn’t. Read every book that had been reviewed by the New York Times. She might learn to knit. It was cold where she was going. She’d need lots of knit stuff. Scarves and hats and afghans and such.
She’d never experience another summer with dead brown grass on the sides of the roads and blackened burned out areas every few yards where people had tossed lit cigarette butts as they sped by. She always thought it made the Metroplex look like a version of highway to hell. She wouldn’t experience daily air quality alerts, the result of living in the world’s most populous inland area. Or the constant spring and summer threats that went with residing in “tornado alley”.
Yes. She wanted to live someplace that didn’t have tornado alarms. Clean air. Blue water. Cool days. Sure there might be snow. And ice and single digit temps. Every place had its downside.
Maybe she’d make new friends. Maybe she wouldn’t One thing was certain. It would be very unlikely that she’d run into anyone who had witnessed the color drain from her face when her intended had stood at the front of a church and blurted out, “I can’t. I just can’t,” right before he’d bolted out a side door and left her standing there staring at the best man.
The best man. In her mind she kept replaying the look of pity and apology on his face as he blinked at her with uncertainty as to what to do next since the groom no longer between them. She remembered how she didn’t want to turn her head to the right and see the shocked expressions of eight hundred well-dressed guests.
Later that day, face still mottled red with fury, Lana’s father had promised to take care of Stuart in his own unique Texan sort of way. “I’ll neuter the son of a bitch and throw his balls in with the calf fries down at the restaurant for some stranger to enjoy. Ignorance is bliss. Unless you’d like to have the privilege for yourself, little girl.”
Getting an unbidden image of that, she’d gagged twice.
“Thanks, Dad. I appreciate it, at least the sentiment behind it, but I’m thinking I’ll pass. And unless you want to end up in Huntsville, I think you better find another way to express your displeasure. You know sometimes I think you skipped the twentieth century altogether. You just popped in right out of 1886.”
He nodded. “Something to be said for simpler methods, if you know what I mean.” He looked at her meaningfully.
“Yes. I know what you mean and so does every electronic listening device with surveillance distance.”
Her comment gave him pause. He looked around uneasily as if someone was eavesdropping and kissed her on the top of the head as he was making ready to leave. “You worried about what you say in your own house? There’s no excuse for that. Ever heard of McKesson Security?”
She sighed. “I’m not worried about what I say inside my own house because I don’t plot crimes out loud.”
Lana’s father simply grunted at that as if to say maybe she was slow. “Come have lunch down at the store tomorrow.”
She was pleased that he had calmed a little and smiled. “We’ll see. Maybe.” She caught his sleeve as he turned toward the door. “You know I’m, um, sorry about the expense and…”
“Don’t you dare apologize!” He’d turned red in the face again and she immediately regretted having said something to cause it. She worried when his coloring went so out of whack. “You haven’t done a thing to be sorry for. It’s that dump of steaming yellow horse turds that needs a good dose of sorry.” He lowered his chin and stepped in closer. “You know your cousins…”
“Dad! Don’t say another word!” He stopped. She grabbed hold of his lapel and squeezed like it had nerve endings. “And make sure you’ve got them under control. Please.” Leaning in she whispered, “Stuart is out of bounds. Let karma deal with it.”
Her dad looked at her incredulously and then guffawed. “Karma! Shit.” He left shaking his head.
Yeah. That’s what she’d told her dad alright. Then she proceeded to break Stuart’s nose herself. Guess the thing about apples not falling far from trees isn’t just horse honky. She didn’t feel a bit of remorse about it. The fucker’s nose was in need of rearranging and she was glad she’d been the one to do it.
She was thus replaying the events in her head when the oddest thing occurred. She’d been staring at the TV that had been the source of her inspiration, and maybe salvation, while her mind had been elsewhere. Then she felt something unusual. It wasn’t sorrow or despair or grief. It wasn’t any of the emotions that usually hang with broken heartedness. It was excitement, sort of a tingly rush at the thought of pulling up stakes, leaving everything and everyone she knew behind. A transformation. The true essence of total “make over”.
She was throwing caution to the wind. Hell. She wasn’t even going to give reasonable notice at work. She knew they had two people prepped and groomed to step in if necessary. So it wasn’t like it would be a serious hardship on anyone. If it ruined her future career? She shrugged at the thought not being able to imagine caring about it anymore.
She took a moment to examine the flutter of anticipation in her tummy and concluded that she liked the adventurous Lana. The one who would leave everything familiar and embark on a whole new life at the drop of a hat.
Quit the job. Sell the house. Give everything away that won’t fit on a boat and move so far out of her comfort zone she might not even be able to remember her own resume.
She chuckled at the thought that it was like putting herself in a witness protection program. Well, not really. She knew that when she got where she was going and decided what she was doing that she would let her family know where she was. And Dizzy, who wouldn’t hesitate to deliver a lecture and say she’d tumbled off the rack. In her fantasy, Lana imagined her reply. “You were hounding me to get out. So I got out. Far out.”
The prospect was delightful from every conceivable angle. Damn. She wondered if there was even a remote chance that Stuey had done her a favor. She hated to admit it, but Stuey was just metrosexual enough that she didn’t have a hard time picturing him in a dress with many layers of tulle in the skirt, holding a star tipped wand. Bing. There you go, little lady. A whole new life to replace the one you thought you had, but didn’t.
Looking around she said, “I’ve got to get this cleaned up. You go up for sale tomorrow morning.” The walls didn’t reply, which made her like them all the more. She decided that talking to herself felt good and could become a habit with little effort. Maybe, once she was moved and settled in, she’d get a cat. She’d be that strange young woman from Texas who lived on a boat with a cat and talked to herself.
Such was her train of thought as she went about picking up Coke cans, tissues and other debris, preparing to face an upheaval that the old Lana would never have considered in a hundred years. In a couple of hours she had the place looking like a little bit of yuppie chic heaven. She heated up a frozen dinner in the microwave and ate in front of the computer. It didn’t take long to decide where she’d start looking for a new home.
Constitution Marina, Boston.