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
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
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
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.
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
“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
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
“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
“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
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
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
If she was lucky, it was the smoke from someone friendly’s
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.
Read FAIREST on Amazon now