Disclaimers: See Part One
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Notes: I apologise for the delay in posting, and the fact that this still has a little way to go, so I am posting chapters as they are finished from here...4 more chapters left!
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN
A large fist slammed into the stone bench.The sound of flesh impacting the cool marble echoed around the garden.Shep winced in pain, refusing to make a sound, to appear weak.Blood began to pulse from his knuckles in lazy spurts as he fell onto the garden seat.He sat, silently staring at nothing for what seemed like hours, but was only minutes, as time spun out before him.
Caught up in his own private hell, the former gladiator was almost oblivious to his surroundings.He heard a feint sound to his right but ignored it, there was no danger left here.It had already come and gone, ripping out their hearts as it passed.As he continued to drift in a haze of despair and self-loathing, he felt a pair of smaller hands enfold his own.Broken form his revelry he found himself gazing into the worriedeyes of the woman he loves.Knelt at his feet was Megan, running soothing fingers over his knuckles.
" Mathew, you canít keep doing this, baby." Megan cooed.Seeing her mate working himself into a tighter and tighter ball of pain each day was beginning to take its toll on both of them.She looked deep into his dark eyes and saw that the spark that had lived in them was gone." None of this was your fault!Damn it, Hunterís a hell of a lot more capable of taking careof herself than either you or I.Thatís why she protected Francesca." The hands in hers suddenly tightened painfully.
" She is not dead!" It came out as a growl. " Donít say that!"
" Mat, let go of me." His hands instantly released hers, but neither moved away.Megan began to shake feeling back into her fingers." I never said any such thing!" They were shouting at each other now, the voices of warriors splitting the gardens tranquillity asunder.
" You said she protected Francesca...Like sheís gone, forever.Sheís not... Weíll get her back." All of the fight suddenly left the big man, leaving him empty and vulnerable.Megan moved onto the bench beside him, cradling his head on her shoulder.As she began to sooth him with soft words and even softer touches, the dam on his emotions broke.He cried, not only for the woman that he called sister in his heart, but also for the gentle twins and the family that he never really knew.
" Well, as sorry as I am that Hunterís probably dead at least weíre getting more free time, ëcause of the cops." Savage grinned widely just before stuffing a hand full of peanuts into his mouth.
" You really are all heart arenít you?You better not let Shep hear you talking like that, the way heís feeling heíll rip your head off." The usually quiet man looked at his companion, Savage was too dark to ever be called a friend, and shook his head.
The four remainingslaves had found themselves at rather loose ends since the kidnapping.Police filled the house and grounds at all hours of the day and night.Their presence was even greater than it had been in the wake of Douglasí murder.The likelihood that the stalker would return were slim at best, she seemed to have totally lost interest in Francesca.The proliferation of blue uniformed men and women meant that the Prince family were protected within the walls of the estate, making the bodyguards defunct until they ventured into the world at large.Leisure time was something new to the group and each was dealing with it in their own unique ways.
Savage was taking this new lifestyle in stride, enjoying himself a little too much, in Snakeís opinion.The idea of ëeat drink and be merryí seemed to have become his new philosophy.The kidnapping hadnít seemed to affect the callous man at all.In fact he had been hit harder by the death of their master.They had much in common, pondered the thin man.Wolf was falling apart, filled with guilt over Hunter and Meg was using all her time to try and pull him back together.He felt for the couple, they had been through so much.As close as he was to their formidable leader, he could not imagine the depth of pain that the big gladiator was feeling over her absence.What about me?He pondered for a moment.He was sad, yet couldnít help but revel in the freedom.It was intoxicating but he would never take advantage of this situation, or any other.It was not his way.
His introspection was broken by the sound of raised voices echoing around the gardens.Since the incident,the grounds had been soundless, the children didnít play, even the birds didnít seem to sing.A foolish notion, Snake knew, but it seemed to be true.The shouts were angry, raising as the minutes passed.He knew the voices, how could he not?He had heard those same voices every day for years, but rarely had he heard them fight.
" I love the sounds of warriors in the morning." The snickered words, coming from hisside made his eyes narrow menacingly at Savage." Hey, kidding!God, you people really need to loosen up."
" This is hardly the time for ëlightening upí.Now if you donít have anything constructive, or even pleasant, to say I suggest you shut your bloody mouth and help me find those two." The growled words, from such an unexpected source, shocked the smaller man into silence.He followed the tall, bald man in relative silence, broken by the occasional crunch of a nut.
Quiet.Everything was so quiet.The children played, but it was subdued.Her parents spoke in whispers.Her brothers kept their distance, comforting as best they could.Everything had changed since Hunter went away.
Francesca walked the estate like a dark spectre.She would wonder the halls at the dead of night, unable to sleep alone.It was ironic, all the years she had been married to Douglas she had been relieved to sleep alone.But now, after only a few short weeks of sleeping next to the gladiator, sleep was almost impossible.She had found passages that she hadnít walked down in years and the newly rebuilt wing was fascinating to her sleep fogged mind.
During the day she would walk through the gardens, reliving memories of the woman she loved.Memories of recent months and of a long ago childhood.She was alone, seldom seeking the company of others, spending the barest amount of time with her precious children.She simply couldnít face them.She never returned to ëtheirí place.The clearing held too many mixed emotions for her to take right now, aheíd only go back with Rhani, or not at all.
Today was like any other.She trudged from one well manicured path to another, passing perfect lawn after perfect lawn.Topiary shrubs and flower beds lost their beauty after the hundredth time you walk past them.She wasnít looking at the gardens, though, hadnít on any of her walks.She looked straight ahead, seeing the gardens as they had been in her childhood.Watching herself and another play hide and seek, or tag, ruining the grass and being chased by the crotchety old gardener.A smile came unbidden to her face as she saw, in her minds eye, one such day.
Screams of childish glee floated up to the terrace.Two bored looking teenage boyscast a quick, cursory glance in the direction of the two little girls running around on the grass, before going back to their own pursuits.Nineteen year old Nathaniel went back to his mountains of mind-numbing college work while his little brother concentrated on his tan.Down below the seven year olds clearly had a far better idea about how to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon.
Water balloons sailed through the air, drenching the taller of the two combatants.Waterpoured down her face, a lock of hair plastered to her forehead.She began to blow upwards, trying to dislodge it, scrunching her face up like a clown.Still holding her own projectiles in hand she pulled her arm back and launched it at the hysterically laughing brunette.Francesca was so busy laughing that she never saw the balloon coming.It hit the pudgy child square in the face.
" Iíll get you for that, Rhani!" She playfully threatened.
" You gotta catch me first, Chess." Stillin possession of a bright red balloon, she blew a raspberry at her soaked friend and broke into a sprint across the pristine lawn.
Francesca was hot on her heels almost at once.As they ran, laughed and screamed (as children often do) they also cut divots out of the glass smooth surface of the turf.
As thoughts of Randy, the frail old gardener of their childhood, chasing them off the grass flooded her mind, she heard the sound of shouting.It was too far away for her tomake out the words but the anger was clear.She could vaguely make out two separate voices, one male, the other female.Her interest peaked for the first time in weeks, she headed towards the sound of voices.
Snake and Savage came onto the scene as Meg began to rock the quietly sobbing man in her arms.Even with their tracking skills, it had taken the pair a while to find the lovers due to the maze-like natured of this part of the garden.Before Savage could make a cruel comment about the situation, his taller partner elbowed him sharply in the rips, forestalling the words that were on the tip of his tongue.
Meg looked up sharply at the rushed exhalation of breath, locking eyes first with one man and then the other.Exchanging, wordlessly, thanks for their silence.In her arms Shep began to regain his composure, drawing in deep breaths.He pulled away from the woman who should have been his wife and surveyed the other men.Savage wore his usual sneer, but Snake looked embarrassed at seeing this powerful warrior in such a state of weakness.
" We need to get her back." The statement was softly spoken, but may as well been shouted for the command that it possessed.
" And how exactly do you suggest we do that?ESP?"
" Thanks for your support, Sav.Nice to know some things can be counted on in this world." A brief smile graced the red haired womanís face.
" We need to go in and take her." The words were growled.
" If that were possible, do you really think the police would be toying with her life like this?" Snake was truly incredulous.
" Why not?They arenít trying to rescue Hunter, theyíre trying to catch Francescaís kidnapper." Almost before the words had finished leaving his lips, a dark haired form rushed through the hedge.
Francesca stood before them, her blue eyes wide and her breathing short and ragged, as though she had run a long distance swiftly.However, her skin was free from sweat and her clothes remained immaculate.This was a woman in a state of panic, not exertion.
" That canít be true!" Francescaís voice cracked on the words.
" Iím sorry, but why else do you think theyíve waited?" Wolf looked into eyes that shared his sorrow." Every day that they wait her out, that nut could kill Hunter." The words seemed to cut the tall womanís strings, she suddenly collapsed onto the hard bench, shoulders shaking.
" I canít loose her again." Forcefully wiping the tears from her eyes, she turned to face the four bodyguards." If we knew where she was, could we do something to get her out?"
With raised eyebrows Meg mouthed ëwe?í, Snake simply shrugged his shoulders.The small group focused their attention on Shep, waiting for his response.His rugged face was pensive, as he mulled over what Francesca had just said.If they knew the location of Hunter and her captor, they could go in and get her.Their years of training in all aspects of conflict made them much more adept at this than the police.
" Yes, we could.Weíll get her out.One woman against the four of us shouldnít cause too much trouble.The real danger is what she could do to Hunter when we try this.Iíll give this some thought while you go and sweet talk the police." He tentatively rested his hand on her shoulder, relieved when rather than pull away she reached up to cover it with her own." You sit tight...um...Mistr..."
" Donít." It was soft, a request not an order." Call me Francesca."
" Weíll bring her home to you Francesca." It was nice to view this woman as more than the embodiment of their servitude.
" Iím coming with you, when you go.You canít leave me behind, I have to be there when you get her out." She squeezed the hand she still grasped." Please, I promise not to get in the way, I wonít put the mission in danger."
" Canít really stop you, can we?"
Thirteen...Fourteen...Fifteen.Fifteen goldfish swam in the spacious tank in front of her.Back and forth they went, blissfully oblivious to the world around them.Serene and tranquil.Werenít there sixteen yesterday?Or was that last week? The thoughts swam around her head like the fish in the tank, making her already weak body feel increasingly dizzy.
Over the days that they had been holed up in the cabin, Hunter had surrendered herself completely to the other woman.The accumulation of drugs in her system, and the legacy of many beatings gave her little choice.As soon as Jordan saw that Hunter was willingly complying to her wishes, responding when they made love and talking about old times, she stopped the drugs.The irrational woman was satisfied that the last of the Prince ëbrainwashingí had been purged.
Of course, when the gladiator didnít make the right noises she was still punished.The last residues of her affection for Francesca were being beaten out of her skin.Bunter had always prided herself on being strong, stoic.She had never cried at the hands of the Arenaís trainers, even when they came close to filleting her skin from the bone.Yet she had wept many tears since she had been in this cheery place.Not tears of pain, but tears of sorrow over the woman who was so full of light, that was now boiling over the edge.
Dragging her attention away from the fish, mesmerising as they were.Pretty, the childish thought popped into her head.She started to laugh, but stopped with a hiss of pain as one of her many broken ribs made itself known.She lowered her chin to her chest, breathing shallowly to regain her equilibrium.She reached down and grasped the wheels of the chair, laboriously manouver herself into the den and the television.It was the only contact she was allowed with the outside world, and then only the player worked.
Sliding a shiny silver disk into the front of the player, she picked up the remote of the top of the television set and wheeled herself into a comfortable position in front of it.She tried to relax, the background sounds of Jordan puttering around in the kitchen grated on her nerves.She had to bite back the bile in her throat as she thought of what was to come this evening.She relaxed her frame, easing the pain of a broken leg and ribs and countless other wounds.
Know that I love you Chess.When I say it to Jordan I am only thinking of you.She let the silent words give her strength, hoping that when this was over, Francesca would be able to understand.A long fingered hand softly landed on her shoulder and caressed her neck, as Jordan came into the room.She placed a tray of snacks and drinks on the high coffee table and seated herself on Hunters lap, enjoying the feel of the other woman beneath her.
Hunter tried not to squirm.
" Think sheíll make a move soon?" The scruffy middle-aged man stuffed a third doughnut into his mouth.
" Why would she?She must have all the stuff she needs.Bitch doesnít even have groceries delivered." The younger officer wound down his window, trying to loose some of the sickly smells that lingered in the car. Stale pastries and cigarettes didnít make a good combination.
The two police officers were doing surveillance the house from a safe distance.State of the art equipment allowed them to be well hidden from the view of the house and yet have a perfect view through the monitors on the dashboard.They would both be very glad when this was all over, days in the woods were very boring.
" Hope she hasnít killed that slave." The older man yawned widely and scratched his crotch.
" Why, Ned?"
" You never seen her fight, Phil?Sheís the best, hopefully when all this shits over the Prince Corp will sell her back to the arena.I canít wait for her next fight."
" Why would they keep her after this anyway?Dumb ass couldnít even do her job.Shows slaves arenít any brighter than dogs.Stop people having the stupid idea that animals can protect them better than cops."
" Here, here." Ned and Phil brought their cola cans together in a crude toast." Damn good fighter though."