My latest novel, FAIREST, is available now on Amazon. It’s the latest in my contemporary fairy tale series, and while the setting will be familiar if you’ve read Seeing Red and Cinders, it’s a Snow White story that can be read as a standalone novel.
Read the first chapter below.
I can’t believe he took my phone.
That was the detail Luma White was focused on as she sat in the passenger seat of her Audi, hands bound in front of her and a blindfold slipping down around her nose. Her phone – how much of an eighteen-year-old girl could she be? That was what she was most concerned about, but on the other hand, it was easier to fixate on the phone than on everything else.
She’d been in the car for about three hours now. The blindfold – made of some ridiculously silky fabric, definitely not kidnapping-grade – had begun sliding down her nose about an hour into the trip and she was grateful for that. Riding in a car with her eyes shut always made her feel sick, and when her captor noticed that she could see again, she convinced him not to cover her eyes again.
“I’m already lost,” she said. “Isn’t that why you blindfolded me? So I wouldn’t know where we’re going? Mission accomplished.”
The man driving Luma’s car was her stepmother’s bodyguard, Antonio. Slave would have been a more appropriate word for how that woman treated him, but he’d always been nice to Luma.
Well, until today.
At least she was going to get through this without being sick. Silver linings and all that.
They were driving on a narrow, somewhat primitive road with tall, evergreen trees on either side. It was dark thanks to the forest’s dense coverage even though they started driving around noon. Antonio had appeared in the doorway of Luma’s room and told her he needed help running an errand for her father – that was a little unusual, but nothing to raise her suspicions. By the time he was opening the passenger door of Luma’s car for her, telling her they were going to pick up some files at her father’s office, Luma started asking questions.
How did you get my car key? was the first one, but she never got an answer to that.
Once she was in the car, Antonio locked the doors and told her to put the blindfold on. Luma objected, and that’s when things got scary. He’d forced the blindfold over her eyes and she’d spent the first whole hour of the trip frantic.
The errand to her father’s office was a lie and Luma should have seen it coming – Antonio worked for her stepmother, and her father was out of the country. Luma hadn’t even questioned it when Antonio said it was for her father.
If Luma was thinking clearly, she should have been memorizing the turns of the car, paying attention for sounds outside that could help her, and keeping better track of the time. But she’d known Antonio ever since she was a kid – since her stepmother, Tabitha, did her Vogue modeling spread and picked up a stalker in the process. She hired Antonio to keep her safe, and Luma always felt safe around him, too.
Now, she was just scrambling to try and figure out what had changed.
Was he kidnapping her?
“Where are you taking me?” she’d asked before she realized the futility of demanding that sort of information from someone who’d blindfolded her. When she got her wits about her a little more, she asked, “Why do I have to be blindfolded? Did Tabitha ask you to do this? What are you going to do to me?”
Antonio didn’t respond to any of her questions. He was deadly silent from the driver’s seat, and when Luma’s blindfold began slipping down her nose, she could see that his eyes never strayed from the road ahead. Please just look at me, she thought. What are you doing?
Her last-ditch attempt to snap him out of whatever had overcome him was a threat that sounded weak even to Luma’s own ears. “Wait until my father hears about this.”
“Shut up,” Antonio said. “Please, just keep your mouth shut.”
It wasn’t a favorable response, but at least he’d said something. His words sounded almost as pleading as Luma’s own questions, like he was frantically trying to find a way to justify all of this. Tabitha had to be behind it. Of course – Tabitha had always hated her.
So Luma shut up, and she waited.
She tried to be patient and wait for Antonio to come to his senses. He’d do the right thing – she just had to give him time to come to his senses. He’d abducted his boss’s stepdaughter while her husband was out of town on business. Antonio was probably just trying to figure out how to take Luma home without letting her father know what he’d done.
Or rather, what Tabitha had ordered him to do.
It had to be the stupid modeling contract, Luma thought while Antonio drove them deeper and deeper into the woods. Damn it. I don’t even want to be a model.
Tabitha had blown up at her yesterday. She’d gone downtown in the morning to get her lips plumped and the aesthetician had used a new type of filler. Tabitha’s lips had blown up like balloons and she came home looking like she had a pair of plump red hotdogs beneath her nose. They looked painful and she was irritable, and then she’d seen the contract that Luma had left on the desk in her father’s study.
Luma wanted him to review it when he came home from his business trip. She’d never imagined herself as a model, never wanted that kind of attention, but people kept saying she was beautiful and it was a natural fit for her. She’d gone to the modeling agency mostly to humor the agent who kept trying to recruit her, and because she was eighteen now and she still didn’t know what she wanted to be when she grew up.
Why not a model? she thought when they offered her the contract. So she brought it home and promised the agency an answer just as soon as she had a chance to discuss it with her father.
Then Tabitha saw the contract and lost it. Luma had never seen her so angry, actual spittle flying from her over-puffed lips as she slammed the contract down in front of Luma.
“You don’t even want to be a model,” she said, narrowing her eyes at Luma. “You don’t want your trust fund, either. You don’t appreciate anything you’ve got, and it’s all just been handed to you. Ungrateful girl!”
Tabitha hadn’t spoken to Luma since yesterday, but the longer Antonio drove, the more certain she was that this was all Tabitha’s doing. Am I ungrateful? she was wondering for the hundredth time when the car hit a pothole and she could no longer ignore the fullness of her bladder.
“Antonio?” she asked softly.
“Don’t talk,” he said.
“Antonio,” she insisted, trying not to anger him. “I really have to pee. I can’t hold it much longer.”
She looked at him, and for once, he looked back at her. She was begging him, wordlessly. Please. On top of everything else, please don’t put me through the humiliation of wetting myself. He hadn’t listened to anything else she said so far, but the desperation in her eyes was what finally cracked him.
He sniffed, then looked at the clock on the dashboard – probably trying to figure out how far they’d come from the house. Far enough – Luma’s father loved to be in the middle of the action and he’d built his mansion in the center of the city. Luma had never even been this far into the wilderness and it might as well have been a whole other country.
“Fine,” Antonio said. “Hold on a minute.”
“Thank you,” Luma said. “Thank you, Tony.”
He scowled at her. Was that too much, calling him by his nickname? He never minded it before, but he’d never abducted her before, either. Antonio found a dirt road that branched off the two-lane highway and turned onto it. Road was pretty generous, actually – it was barely more than a couple of grooves worn into the dirt. He drove the car just far enough so that it wouldn’t be seen from the road, then turned off the engine.
The passenger door unlocked automatically and Luma reached for the handle, but Antonio locked it again with the push of a button on the driver’s side door. “I’m coming around to get you.”
“Okay,” Luma squeaked. When he opened the door from the outside, he extended his hand to help Luma out – probably more through instinct than anything else. She took his hand, shaking her head so the blindfold fell all the way down to her neck, and she said hopefully, “You know, Tabitha gets in her moods all the time. I bet by the time we drive home, she’ll have forgotten what she was mad about.”
“Do you have to pee or don’t you?” Antonio asked.
“Yeah, I do,” Luma said. “But-”
She wanted to know what he was thinking. There was a wild, cornered look in his eyes that she really didn’t like, and things suddenly felt a whole lot more dire now that the two of them were standing alone in the great silence of the forest.
“Go, then,” he said. “There’s a bush right over there.”
“Okay,” Luma said meekly.
Her bladder really was aching – she’d just finished a pretty big smoothie when Antonio came into her room and she’d been squirming in her seat for quite a while. Trying not to think about how badly she had to go was the only thing that had been distracting her from the awfulness of the situation, but she couldn’t ignore it anymore.
She went behind the bush, the heels of her shoes sinking into the soft earth and pine needles poking her bare legs as she lifted her skirt. Just as she was beginning to feel a bit better – about one thing, at least – she heard the Audi’s engine roar to life.
Oh God, he’s leaving me out here!
Luma rushed to rearrange her skirt and darted out from behind the bush just in time to see Antonio floor the gas pedal. The tires spun in place for a moment, kicking up dirt and moss from the forest floor, and then the car gained traction and Antonio drove it straight into a tree.
“What the hell?” Luma shouted as the hood crumpled slightly and the engine died. A small tendril of steam was rising from the car and Luma ran around to the driver’s side. “Antonio, are you okay?”
She got there just in time for him to open the door – he had to put his shoulder into it since the collision had bent the frame of the car. He got out, unscathed, and Luma looked at him wide-eyed and speechless.
Antonio put his hands on her shoulders, their eyes locking as he said, “Your stepmother ordered me to bring you out here and kill you. I’ve been going over it in my head for the last three hours, trying to imagine a world in which I could do that, and I just can’t.”
Tabitha wants me dead?
A jolt of fear ripped through her, followed by a twinge of relief. Antonio said he couldn’t do it – so where did that leave them? Standing next to the smoking remains of Luma’s car, that was where. No matter what else happened, they weren’t going to be driving out of there.
“Listen carefully,” Antonio said. “You met with the modeling agency yesterday. They sent you on a go-see and that’s where you were going today – you were driving alone, a deer jumped in front of your car and you crashed. You must have been disoriented – maybe you hit your head. You wandered into the woods and no one heard from you again.”
“Tabitha has her eyes on your trust fund,” he continued. “You know that, right?”
“I know she hates getting an allowance from my father,” Luma said, swallowing hard. “But this is about the modeling contract, isn’t it?” He shook his head and Luma had never seen him so serious. “She really wants me dead?”
“I’ve been her right hand for ten years,” Antonio said. “I know her better than anybody and I know when she’s serious about something. Luma, you have to disappear or she will kill you.”
“What about my dad?” she asked. “Let’s call him, or-”
Or the police, she thought.
“I can’t do that,” Antonio said, glancing at the car. “You don’t know what she’s capable of.”
“I think I have some idea,” Luma said, crossing her arms over her chest. She had no phone, no money, and no idea where she was. If she screamed at the top of her lungs right now, no one but the birds and other forest animals would hear her – and Antonio, who’d already made up his mind.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “You really don’t. Trust me, Luma, for your own safety – and mine – you have to let Tabitha think you’re dead. If you come home, she’ll kill you and then she’ll kill me for not doing the job myself.”
Luma’s mouth dropped open as she attempted to process all of this, trying to formulate a response that never materialized.
“Just disappear, Luma,” he said. A tear ran down his cheek and he added, “I’m sorry.”
He turned and started walking back toward the road, and Luma called after him, “Antonio.”
When he turned around, she asked, “Are you planning to walk home?”
“I’ll figure something out,” he said. “So will you.”
Shit. Antonio turned around and headed back up the dirt path to the highway, and Luma just stood in the forest for a minute, trying to wrap her mind around what just happened.
She tilted her head back, feeling a headache coming on. The forest was actually kind of beautiful, shafts of sunlight breaking through the evergreens and highlighting the pine needle-carpeted forest floor.
A bird chirped, unseen, in a tree somewhere close and Luma thought it sounded like a cuckoo. Her high school biology teacher had been obsessed with birdsong and Luma had a lot of them memorized even though she’d rarely heard them in real life. Cuckoos weren’t city birds.
“What the hell am I supposed to do now?” she asked the forest, and because the trees didn’t talk and birds rarely sang their songs in English, she received no answer.
She went over to the car and tried the key in the ignition, but the engine was shot and it wouldn’t turn over. She went through the glove compartment and the trunk, looking for anything that could help her, but she’d never been more than a phone call away from AAA.
The glove compartment held nothing helpful and Luma was all but useless without her phone, anyway.
She was stranded and she had no choice but to start walking. Her heels kept sinking into the loamy forest floor as she picked her way back up the overgrown dirt path and she was actually relieved when she got to a paved road. Her kitten heels weren’t made for hiking, but at least she could get her footing on the road.
At least I’m alive.
That was not a thought she expected to have that day. She kept walking, trying not to focus on all of the questions stretching out on the road in front of her. Where am I going? What will I do when I get there? Do I go to the cops? Will Tabitha retaliate against Antonio – or even my dad – if I do?
They were all unanswerable, insurmountable problems.
And then Luma started to hear pine needles crunching in the forest beside the road. She turned her head and for a fleeting moment, she wondered if Antonio had a change of heart and was coming back for her.
Or coming back to finish the job. Tabitha always did have an otherworldly ability to know when her demands were not being met. She was a woman of means and beauty – or at least she used to be – and it was pretty rare that anyone dared to disobey her. Did Antonio call her after he crashed Luma’s car? Did he cave already and admit that he hadn’t done what Tabitha asked of him?
Then all of those worries dissipated and Luma’s heart arrested in her chest.
A fat black bear was lumbering toward her out of the forest, no more than thirty feet away. It turned its head sideways at her, wondering how it had gotten so lucky that its next meal had delivered itself to the woods. Its mouth opened, a hint of long, sharp teeth poking out from under its lips, and then Luma was running.
The bear emerged onto the road, looking like it didn’t mind chasing down its dinner. Luma ran as fast as her feet would carry her, and when one of her heels fell off, she barely gave it a thought. She limped a few steps and then kicked off the other shoe, hardly losing speed.
She made it about fifteen yards away and then a second bear emerged from the woods, standing in front of her. If a bear could speak, this one would have said, Gotcha.
Are you freaking kidding me? Luma thought.
When the bear in front of her growled, she ducked off the open road and through a tangle of what turned out to be pricker bushes. They cut into her bare arms and legs, but Luma fought her way through them. Her stepmother put a hit on her, her father was away on business, and Antonio had just smashed her car. She was not about to be eaten by bears on top of everything else.
Luma didn’t turn around to find out if the bears were giving chase. She didn’t acknowledge the pain of each pine needle stabbing into the tender soles of her feet, or the scratches and pinpricks of blood covering her arms and legs. She just ran until her lungs burned and her thighs ached, until she had to stop or else she’d fall down in exhaustion.
When she finally did stop, leaning against a tree and panting to catch her breath, Luma looked back. There was no bear, and there was no visible path back to the road. She couldn’t see the road at all anymore, and she couldn’t even say with any certainty which direction she’d come from.
“I’m lost,” she said to the forest, tears springing to her eyes. “I am lost in the woods.”
She might not have spent much time in the forest before, but Luma knew from her schooling that it went on for hundreds of miles. People got lost in the forest every year, some of them died, and Luma was no Girl Scout.
She sank to the ground, her skirt riding up her thighs as more pine needles jabbed into her skin. She put her head back against the tree and her long black hair snagged against the rough bark. She looked up. The only thing she had going for her was the fact that it was spring, the days were getting longer, and she still had a good five hours of daylight left – not that she had any idea what to do with it.
Then, above the tall trees, she noticed a thin tendril of smoke in the distance.
Luma watched it for a minute or two, expecting it to disappear, but it persisted – it was a sign of life and her best shot at survival. She got up, brushed the pine needles off her skin, where they were stuck to her by a thin sheen of sweat, and started walking.
Limping was more like it, and she winced with every step. Her shoes were lying on the side of the road, or perhaps had become the bear’s new chew toys. She had no choice but to pin all her hopes on that tendril of smoke.
If she was lucky, it was the smoke from someone friendly’s fireplace.
What she found, at least an hour and many, many painful pine needles later, was a cottage in a clearing. It was all by itself in the woods, no sign of civilization nearby, and the smoke trail Luma had followed was coming from a large brick structure outside the cottage. It was about six feet square – a fireplace of some sort, closed on all sides with a large steel plate on the front that looked like a door, plus a chimney on top.
“Hello?” Luma called. Her voice echoed softly against the trees but no one answered.
She left the fireplace and walked around to the cottage door. Someone had swept the dirt around the perimeter of the building, a welcome reprieve from the pine needles that had rendered Luma’s feet numb.
She knocked on the door, waited and listened for a minute, then called, “Hello? Is anyone home?”
No one answered. Luma tried to peek in the windows, but they were covered with a film of dirt and she couldn’t see inside. If it wasn’t for the smoking fireplace, she would have thought the cottage was abandoned.
She knocked again, then tried the doorknob.
It turned easily and the door swung inward. Luma called again, “Hello? I’m sorry to intrude, but I could really use some help.”
There was still no answer, and she glanced back toward the forest, then down at her own scraped and dirty limbs. It was either stay outside and risk another encounter with that bear, or go inside and hope the cottage had a telephone. At the very least, she could get cleaned up and dig the pine needles out of her feet.
Luma inched her way inside.