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Read the first three chapters of Madeleine Taylor’s ‘Santa’s Favorite’!

Chapter 1

Is he really staring at me again? I narrow my eyes at Santa, who’s been ogling me each time I walk past. His big stage on the ground floor has been strategically placed at the far end of Bergman’s, and he’s sitting in an elaborately decorated sleigh filled with presents, led by a group of animatronic reindeer. The Norwegian pines that surround the stage look like a real forest, and the long winter wonderland walkway that leads up to him is simply irresistible to kids; moving trees, fake snow and Santa’s deep voice welcoming everyone with a ‘Merry Christmas’ draws them in like bees to honey.

While parents are perusing the aisles of this exclusive department store in Manhattan, kids wait in line for their turn on his lap, to hand him their letters and to have their picture taken with him.

His beard has come loose on one side and his gold half-glasses are sitting crooked on his nose. I can feel his eyes on my behind and let out a groan of frustration as I realize I’ve forgotten the item I came to pick up in the first place. Fuck. Now I have to walk past him again.

My mind is all over the place today; it’s the third time I’ve been lost in my own thoughts, forgetting stuff on the wish list that keeps growing on my tablet. Unfortunately, my personal to-do list keeps growing too, and as I’m working overtime at Bergman’s over my Christmas break, I’m lagging behind on my studies. Just six more days, I tell myself. Then it will be full steam ahead and I’ll be able to focus on my exams and apply for my legal internships.

The store’s VIP customers have an easy life when it comes to their Christmas shopping. All they have to do is send through their shopping list and underpaid suckers like me make sure their gifts are wrapped up beautifully and sent to their family members, kids, wives, husbands or lovers along with a handwritten card so no one would ever entertain the idea that they haven’t put the effort in themselves. We even have phone consultations with the big spenders and give them suggestions on additions or upgrades.

I turn back and head for the jewelry counter to pick up the gold watch with inscription. Bergman’s spans six floors and over a million square feet, so wasting fifteen minutes before arriving upstairs empty handed is not an option, especially over the busy holidays. As much as this job bores me, I need it too, and I don’t intend to get fired just before Christmas.

“All done.” My colleague who mans the jewelry counter hands me the watch and I turn it around to check the inscription that says, ‘For Renate, with love, Henry’. Henry didn’t even pick it himself; I did that. He told me he wanted to buy his girlfriend a watch and that he believed she preferred gold to silver, although he wasn’t entirely sure. When I asked him what inscription he would like, he asked me for suggestions. Ninety percent of my clients are men. They love the easy way out, and more often than not, they ask me to pick something for the ladies in their lives.

“Everything is in the box,” my colleague continues. “Warranty, extra strap in camel leather, receipt for you to email. Do you have any more inscriptions for me today?”

“So far, no. But the last minute orders keep coming in so I might be back.” I give him a smile and a wave and brace myself for another walk past creepy Santa. I could make a detour, but since I’m wearing a Bergman’s name tag, shoppers assume I’m part of the floor team and stop me every few steps for enquiries, so I’d rather take the quickest route to the staff elevators.

The ground floor always annoys me as it’s where most of the festivities happen. ‘Santaland’—an area that provides the whole Christmas experience for adults and kids alike—currently covers three quarters of the ground floor. There’s the winter wonderland walk with Santa’s stage, the interactive nativity exhibition with real animals and actors playing Mary and Joseph, and there’s the huge fake Christmas tree in the atrium that reaches all the way up to the third floor. The VM team have sprayed it with something pine scented that’s so synthetic it’s making me nauseous. Each booth representing a brand, or a range of products, has its own little twist on Christmas and with all of them competing under one roof, it’s culminating into an insane mix of decorations, lights, glitter, sounds and smells that clash like thunder. Our customers love it though, and Bergman’s has been awarded Best Visual Merchandiser three years in a row.

I’m not a big fan of Christmas and working here right now is giving me Christmas overload. The carols that are constantly on repeat, the artificial smells that are way too strong to be pleasant, and the annoyingly chirpy ‘Merry Christmas’ messages and enquiries from colleagues each time I pass them. ‘What are you doing over Christmas?’, ‘How’s your tree looking?’, ‘Big family gathering?’

The excitement they display is beyond me. My family consists of my mother and me, and neither of us cares. We don’t have the best Christmas memories and my mom was never able to afford decorations or presents when I was younger. She even used to take me to work with her at the diner on Christmas Eve, as she was unable to find a babysitter over the holidays. I didn’t mind back then as I was quite happy keeping myself busy with a coloring book and a hot chocolate, but it did sting sometimes when friends from school told me about how their parents had spoilt them with lavish gifts when we were back at school. Now, looking around and seeing what Christmas has become, I despise it even more. It’s a commercial circus and everyone falls for it like a fool.

Quickening my pace, I keep my eyes fixed on the elevators ahead of me as I pass Santa again. Thankfully, he’s got a toddler on each knee and is too busy to notice me this time. I hear both the children and the parents surrounding him burst out in laughter and find it hard to imagine that he’s actually funny. Perhaps he’s not that bad at his job, but I’d still rather see him go. I’ve worked here three years now and the Santa we had before was a lovely old man, but I guess he’s retired now.

“Lucy, wait!” I smile when my colleague and friend Bridget quickly slips into the elevator with me before the doors close. “Don’t you just love Christmas?” she asks, holding up a huge cinnamon cookie wedged between a napkin. “Free cookies and lots of happy people.” Pressing the button for the sixth floor where the staff break room, the mail room and our gift-wrapping room are situated, she takes a bite and holds it out for me. When I decline, she laughs and shakes her head. “Never mind. I know how you feel about Christmas.”

“Sorry. Just not hungry,” I say, not wanting to come across as a miserable Christmas grinch. Bridget never complains about her job. She’s one of those super optimistic people with a wonderful work ethic and sometimes I wish I could be more like her. We’re polar opposites, but we got along from the first day I started here, and she makes me laugh when I’m going through stressful times. In the looks department, we couldn’t be more different either. I’m dressed in a pencil skirt, a white blouse and high heels that make up for my height. My black shoulder-length hair is immaculately styled and my ever-present red lipstick reapplied hourly. Bridget is dressed in black slacks, the same white blouse Bergman’s provides, and comfortable black flats. Her dark curls are sitting on top of her head in a messy jumble and she rarely shows off her shapely hourglass figure I’m so envious of.  Even though eating outside the break room is against the store’s policy, she somehow manages to snack all day long without anyone noticing, and she’s constantly on her phone too.

The elevator ride always seems to take forever but there’s something soothing about the silence in here. The ground floor is for jewelry, cosmetics, and Santaland, the first floor is womenswear, the second menswear, the third childrenswear and toys, the fourth interior, the fifth electronics and besides the various staff areas the sixth floor also houses an assortment of restaurants and a small ‘adult’ section.

“Anything saucy?” I ask when I see her grin while scrolling through her messages.

“Yeah. This guy Jack sent me an interesting picture. Wanna see?”

I laugh and raise a brow at her. “Gross no. Unless Jack is short for Jackie, I’m good.” Bridget’s divorce got finalized six months ago, and she’s been hooked on dating apps ever since. “Are you going to meet up with him?”

“Maybe. There’s someone else I like more, but I’m leaving him hanging in case I get a better offer. It’s almost Christmas, so it’s not like we’ll be meeting up until January.” She changes the subject as the elevator stops on the third floor and another staff member steps inside. “Anyway, I know it’s temporary as you just want to earn some extra cash, but how are you finding your first full-time week?”

“It’s actually harder than I thought,” I say. “Tiring more than anything. I don’t know how you do this day in, day out. And especially right now… Fake enthusiasm, the carols and so much sparkle that my eyes hurt.” I rub them demonstratively. “And then there’s Santa downstairs. He’s been undressing me with his eyes each time I walk past and I’m thinking of taking it to HR. He even winked at me the other day. That’s not okay, right?”

“Santa?” Bridget stares at me, open-mouthed.

“Yeah.” I return her stare. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

She laughs as we step out onto the sixth floor. “Santa’s not a man. Santa Claudia as I’m calling her this year is actually a woman.” Reaching the black door that says, ‘staff only’, she swipes her pass and lets us into the small gift-wrapping room that we share with the team of personal shoppers, then switches on the kettle.

“What?” I put the watch aside because wrapping it can wait until we’ve finished this intriguing conversation. Taking a striped candy cane out of the large bowl next to the kettle, I start picking at the wrap while perching on the edge of the table. “You’re messing with me, right?”

“No, I’m not; I saw her in the dressing room this morning.” Bridget adds tea bags to two mugs and taps her fingers impatiently while she waits for the water to boil. “If you came in early and got changed here like you’re supposed to do instead of crossing town in your uniform, you would have seen her too. You know what? Come to think of it, she did look a little…”

“A little what?”

“A little gay?” Bridget chuckles and winks at me while she pours the water and hands me a mug. “It was her energy, I suppose. Not sure how to explain it, but I felt this vibe coming off her.” She quietly studies me to gauge my reaction. “So, the fact that she’s checking you out might not be a bad thing.”

“Even if she’s a woman, that doesn’t mean she can behave like that,” I say, pretending to be unaffected by this new information. Truth is though, whether it be wrong or right, knowing Santa is a woman changes everything. It’s not very often that women flirt with me as they just assume that I’m straight, and I suddenly feel oddly flattered.

“No, I suppose not.” Bridget dips the rest of her cookie in her tea and leans over the table. “Well, if you want my advice, just tell her that you’re not interested. If she doesn’t stop, then take it to HR.”

Chapter 2

Hearing a whistle behind me as I cross the ground floor, I turn around. My mouth falls open when I realize it’s Santa, who’s tidying her ‘workspace’ after her shift.

Santa pulls down her beard to give me a crooked smile while she bends down to pick up a piece of red wrapping paper. The department store gives out small presents and candy to the kids and despite the cleaning team of elves who sweep the floors three times a day, there’s still wrapping paper and pieces of ribbon everywhere. Now that Bergman’s is closed and the kids are gone, Santa’s less subtle with her flirtations and she stares me up and down like I’m dinner.

I walk up to her, pretending to be offended, but I can’t help but smile back when our eyes meet. Hers are very, very blue. “Are you flirting with me, Santa?”

“Maybe.” Santa’s eyes pull into narrow slits and although her beard has snapped back into place, I know there’s an amused expression behind it. “Are you trying to get my attention…” Her big, fake belly bounces as she jumps off the stage and her eyes lower to the name badge on my chest. “Lucy?”

I let out an exasperated gasp and stare at her. “I’m most certainly not.”

“Then why did you just walk past me three times? In that sexy pencil skirt.”

“It’s my work uniform.” I roll my eyes. “I’m sure you’ve noticed all the women here wear it.”

Santa inches closer and lowers her voice. “Not true. Most of the women wear slacks.” She lowers her gaze, resting her eyes on my cleavage. “And even if they do wear a skirt, they certainly don’t wear it like you. Not with killer heels and a white blouse that’s buttoned down just enough to show the edge of a black lace bra.” She points to my legs. “And not with sheer pantyhose. Or are they thigh high stockings? I have a thing for stockings.”

My slight annoyance is replaced by a blush, and I hope the lights from the Christmas tree next to her stage work in my favor. I should be offended by her objectifying me like this but instead, it sends a twitch between my legs. The fact that she’s standing so close doesn’t help either; I can feel her breath on my face and her voice sounds deliciously intimate.

Maybe this whole Christmas spectacle isn’t going to be so bad after all if I have some entertainment in the form of flirtation to look forward to. I’ve seen her smile now; it’s dazzling, and her piercing eyes have captured my curiosity. Ignoring her last question, I shake my head and do my best to paint on a more serious expression. “Do you flirt with all the women who walk past you?”

Santa looks around to make sure no one is listening, and then turns back to me, her eyes burning into mine. “Only with the ones I’d like to fuck.”

“What?” My eyebrows shoot up and I bring a hand to my mouth. I’m a little outraged, my body is doing its own thing and I feel hot and flustered. Being a law student, conflict brews inside me. This is so wrong, yet I seem to like what’s happening here. Subconsciously I rake a hand through my dark hair and wonder if my eyeliner is still in place.

Santa simply shrugs. “You heard me.” Her confidence is through the roof, and I can’t help but laugh because she’s just too much.

“How come no one has reported you to HR yet?”

“You’re the only one I’ve flirted with so far.”

Her flattery is working and although I’m pretty sure she’s lying, I still like her answer. “How do you know I won’t report you?”

“I’m hoping you won’t.” Santa pauses. “I’m hoping you’ll just tell me to back off if I’m overstepping. Tell me, and I’ll leave you alone. Do you want me to stop?”

I decide not to answer her question as I’m not ready to admit how much I’m loving the attention. “How do you even know I’m into women?”

“Trust me, I know. I’ve seen you looking at me.”

“Have you now?” My voice is dripping with sarcasm but truthfully, she’s right. Ever since Bridget told me she was a woman I’ve been on the ground floor an awful lot. Remembering I’m supposed to finish my order, and that there are another six lists for me to complete before midnight, I hold up the box I’m carrying. “Well, I’m just here because I forgot to bring this; It needs adding to a jewelry order. I’m sorry to disappoint you but I wasn’t walking past to get your attention.”

“Hmm…” Santa nods slowly as she finger-combs her long white beard, never taking her eyes off me. “Do you work in the jewelry department?”

“No. I’m a personal shopper. Just getting the Christmas madness out of the way before we close next week.” I study her with an amused smile, not quite ready to leave just yet. Her straightforwardness is setting me on fire, and I don’t even know what she looks like. “But my guess is you’ll be working over Christmas.”

“True. I am Santa after all. I’ll be here until next week, and then I’ll be spreading the Christmas joy in private New York households.” She points to my package. “With bags full of the goodies you’re preparing.”

“Is that how it works? I didn’t know.”

“Yeah. Wealthy people pay good money to escape the Christmas stress. They put in their order, you collect the presents, wrap them up beautifully and personalize them, then someone prepares the Santa bags, and if they pay the extra thousand dollars, Santa personally drops them off on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.” She pats her chest. “With Santa being me and a dozen other Bergman’s Santas.”

I tilt my head and study her. “Forgive me for saying this, but I’m actually surprised Bergman’s gave you the gig; you’re not the most convincing Santa I’ve ever seen.”

Now it’s Santa’s turn to gasp, and she pulls down her beard again, giving me sight of luscious lips and a neat row of very white teeth. “Are you saying I suck at being Santa?”

I laugh and shake my head in amusement. “Come on; you have to admit that your beard and your glasses aren’t the best props and despite the subtle face paint, you still look too young. I just think that they could have easily found someone a little more convincing. Plus, you’re a woman.” Holding up a hand, I add: “Truthfully, I didn’t register the fact that you’re a woman at first, but surely the kids must notice when they sit on your lap and hear your voice.”

“You mean this voice?” she says, putting on a low and raspy voice that sends a chill down my spine. She climbs back on stage and sits down on her sleigh, her arms resting on the ornate, red velvet covered armrests. When she widens her legs, hunches her back and leans forward, her whole demeanor changes and I must admit that she’s actually very good. “It may be my first time as Santa and I might have to get some better glue for my beard as toddlers keep pulling at it, but believe me; the kids love me and they totally fall for it,” she continues in her Santa voice, drawing the words out slowly like an old man would.

I’m silent for a beat, admittedly impressed by her performance. “Okay, you sound pretty convincing.”

“Thank you.” Santa’s gaze drops to my legs again, no doubt still wondering about my stockings, before she turns her attention to the package I now have clutched against my chest. “So, what have you got in that little box, Lucy? Want to come sit on Santa’s lap and share?” 

My manager calls my name from the bauble section, and I straighten myself and clear my throat, letting Santa know our conversation is over. Fuck. Her request has aroused me and now all I can think of is sitting on her lap.

“No, I have work to do.” Curious to find out what she looks like without her Santa disguise, I’m contemplating going up to the dressing room for a while, assuming she’ll be there to get changed, but I really don’t have time. “What’s your name?”

“Zelda.”

“Oh.” I kind of expected her to stay in her Santa role and I’m pleasantly surprised that she didn’t. “I like it.” Giving my manager a wave to let her know I’m coming, I add: “It was interesting to meet you, Zelda. I’ll see you around.”

Chapter 3

It’s two a.m. by the time I’m in bed. Even naked on top of the covers, I’m warm and I wonder if I turned the heating up too high. After a quick shower and a pack of instant noodles, I still feel shaky and I realize it’s not from hunger or tiredness.

Santa—or Zelda—has my mind spinning with fantasies and I know I won’t be able to sleep unless I can find a way to relax. Replaying our conversation and remembering her smile, an intense flash of arousal shoots to my pussy, making my body ache with need.

‘Only with women I want to fuck.’ Jesus, could she have been any more direct? It’s been a while since I was so sexually drawn to someone. Sure, I’ve had the occasional fling here and there, but I don’t remember the last time I craved someone that specifically or fantasized about sex. I’ve only talked to her once but clearly that was enough for her to capture my undivided attention. God, I’m a sucker. One day I’m considering reporting her and the next, I’m having erotic daydreams about her.

Confused and conflicted, I let out a deep sigh as I glance at the pile of draft application letters for legal internships on the desk opposite the bed. I need to make sure they’re absolutely perfect before I post them in January, and I planned on editing at least one of them tonight but I’m too tired to move. I asked for overtime in my winter break so I’d have a small financial buffer for next year, when I’ll be doing internships and may have to cut down my hours at Bergman’s. Once I graduate and have my J.D, I’ll hopefully find a job as a paralegal while I focus on my bar exam, and then I can finally quit working as a personal shopper.

Studying is time-consuming and women have been the last thing on my mind for the past three years. Bridget keeps telling me that I should be dating at twenty-seven, but I just don’t know where to find the time and anyway, I’m never interested in taking it beyond the first night.

Unlike most people in my class, I don’t come from a wealthy family, and although I have a scholarship, I still have to work on the side to pay for the rent on my dorm room and to cover my living costs. Lucky for me, my lovely but noisy roommate Shelley is with her parents over the Christmas break, and the silence is blissful without her laughing out loud while she watches Netflix in bed and crunches her way through at least three packets of potato chips a night.

Between studying and my part-time job, there’s little time left for fun and I’m okay with that. Shelley and Bridget keep me entertained when I need it, and with only one year left before I graduate, I don’t want to waste money I don’t have. I’ll start having fun once I receive my first proper paycheck and I’m already dreaming about splashing out on some expensive lingerie before meeting co-workers for cocktails downtown. I’ve worked hard to get to where I am and I usually won’t allow myself to get distracted, but Zelda is distracting beyond belief and I’m loving it.

I can’t even say it’s a physical thing as I’ve only seen her in her Santa disguise. No, the attraction is different with her. It’s her energy and her confidence that is drawing me in. Her boldness and playfulness have me curious, and there’s so much I want to know. Why is she working as Santa? What’s her background? Her name is interesting, and I can’t imagine traditional parents naming their child Zelda. But most importantly—what does she look like? All I know is that she has an amazing smile, intense blue eyes, and that she’s into women, of course. Somehow, she knew I was, too.

Most people assume I’m straight, as I look very feminine. My hair is always immaculately styled and my signature feline black eyeliner and red lipstick never out of place. I’ve been told many times my near-black eyes are my selling point, which is why I accentuate them. With a beautiful Venezuelan mother and from what I’ve heard, a very average looking American father, I’m lucky to have my mother’s exotic looks.

Even when I’m not at Bergman’s, I tend to wear the same type of clothes I wear at work; pencil skirts, white blouses and black heels. Keeping it simple and timeless is key as I don’t have the budget to stay on top of fashion, but I need to look presentable in class. I guess you could say I look fairly conservative, although some—like Zelda—may argue that it’s rather sexy. My thigh high stockings—Zelda was right about them—are my only small form of rebellion. What I wear under my clothes is a treat to myself, my little secret, which is why I never get dressed at work. The black, lace bodice that I wore today is extremely low-cut at the front and with the matching garter belt, my lingerie is not meant for my colleagues to see.

A shiver runs through me as I imagine Zelda pulling me onto her lap and finding what’s underneath my skirt as she hikes it up with her white-gloved hands. Is she into lingerie? I’d be surprised if she wasn’t. With another week to go before Bergman’s closes for Christmas, it’s likely that we’ll see each other a lot in passing, and I might even get the opportunity to talk to her again. I might even get the chance to sit on her lap… That last thought drives me crazy and unable to stand the throbbing in my pussy any longer, I blindly reach for the vibrator on my nightstand, turn it on to the highest setting, and slide it between my legs. With Shelley gone, I’ve been using it every night, grateful for the privacy I’m so rarely blessed with. A groan escapes me as the device hits my clit, and I slowly roll my hips as I get used to the intense vibrations that will soon soothe my aching need. As I slide it up and down between my folds, covering my pussy in my own juices, my thoughts are with Zelda. I think of kissing her and it only takes me seconds to balance on the edge of an orgasm. Fuck. Why am I so into her? Removing the vibrator, I lie very still, my breathing quick and heavy as I stare up at the ceiling. Withholding is hard, but I know it will make my orgasm way more intense if I do.

After a minute or so, I slowly bring the vibrator back down and try to concentrate on the memory of Zelda’s lips that flashed a smile at me when she pulled down her beard. God, what I wouldn’t give to have those lips between my legs right now. This toy is great, but nothing compares to the real thing. I moan as my climax builds, and I lift my hips with a quick intake of breath. Shaking wildly, I let the warm waves of ecstasy wash over me while I murmur a curse. As expected, it’s intense and the throbbing in my clit almost hurts before it slowly starts to subside, bringing me back to reality. I breathe in deeply and run a hand over my swollen pussy, drawing out the last aftershocks until I finally fall asleep.

Curious to find out what will happen between Lucy and Santa?

‘Santa’s Favorite’ is now available for pre-order!

Read the first three chapters of Northern Vows! Out 28/20/2020 and available for pre-order.

Photo by Damir Spanic

Chapter 1 – Monday

“Wow, it’s…” Kristine stared out over the rugged landscape and swallowed down the lump in her throat. “It’s so pretty here.” She and Hannah were standing on top of a hill, the spectacular view revealing a narrow path that led down to a large tree-lined, lake below them. Behind the lake, mountains rose as far as the eye could see, their snow-covered tops a vivid contrast against the vivid blue sky. The nearest farms and homes were mere colored specs in the distance, and it felt incredibly secluded, with the dense pine forest behind them and lush green fields stretching out to their left and right.

“And so peaceful.” Hannah wrapped her arms around Kristine’s waist from behind, rested her chin on her shoulder and inhaled against her hair. “We’d better enjoy this quiet time together before our lives change forever over the coming months.” They were in the process of adopting two foster children—a brother and sister—and it had been a long journey from their caseworker completing the home study, to the adoption agency monitoring pre-placement visits. This and the anticipation of coming here, not knowing exactly what to expect of their wedding location, had made her tense but now, she couldn’t be happier. “So, so pretty.”

“Welcome to Valdres,” Espen said as he started lifting their suitcases from the trunk of his car.

“We totally love it here.” Hannah helped him and passed one of the suitcases to Kristine.

“Good. So do I. Dani was worried your guests might be bored if they’re staying for a while; there’s not much to do around here.” He slammed the trunk shut and scratched the stubble on his chin. “But we have a couple of boats, and I can take people out fishing if they want, and there are plenty of hiking trails. There’s also a shortcut to Fagernes through the woods, so you’ll be able to walk there if you get cabin fever. Although it’s very traditional and has more of a village feel, it’s the biggest town in the district of Valdres.”

“I doubt our guests will be bored,” Hannah assured him. “In fact, I think they’ll be delighted to have some quiet time to themselves, and this seems like a great place to catch up with everyone. It’s so private.”

Espen, who ran the small eco-resort together with his wife Dani, had picked them up from the airport and as each mile passed, the more they’d slipped into the wilderness. The last evidence of civilization had been the quaint town they’d driven through fifteen minutes ago, but even that seemed like a world away now. He’d parked the car just behind the gates of a large fenced-off field, filled with fruit trees and wildflowers. Rustic, traditional wooden cabins were dotted around, and to the rear stood a house with an outbuilding next to it. A Norwegian flag was flailing from a pole by the house; most people seemed to have one here. In the middle of the field, a tall wooden cross with rings on both sides rose from the ground and two men were balancing on ladders, decorating it with leafy greenery.

Hannah cast a curious glance over the pagan looking pole. “What is that?”

“We’re setting up the maypole for Midsummer’s Eve,” Espen said. “And since it’s also your wedding night, we’ll make sure it looks extra spectacular this year. These guys are attaching the foliage and we’ll add the fresh flowers last minute.” He waved at the men and shouted something in Norwegian before he turned back to Hannah and Kristine. “In most countries they decorate maypoles in May to celebrate the start of spring, but we don’t get flowers here until June, so in Norway, we decorate it for Midsummer.”

“It looks like something from the movies but without human sacrifices, I hope.” Kristine sniggered and nudged Hannah. “I love you more than anything, darling, but if it comes to that, it’s every woman for herself.”

Espen laughed and shook his head. “No human sacrifices here, don’t you worry.” His eyes lit up when he saw his wife Dani walking up to them with a little girl on her hip. “I see the little pork chop has woken up.”

“Hi, guys! Welcome, I’m so glad you’re here.” Dani greeted them both with a sideward hug and lifted the little girl higher. “This is Evi, our daughter.”

“Hey, Evi.” Kristine smiled as Evi fisted her hand and waved it around wildly while shooting her a toothy grin. “She’s grown so much since the last pictures you emailed us.”

“Yes, she’s almost two, now. A Midsummer child,” Dani said, looking at her daughter lovingly. Evi started screeching and pointed to the ground. “And she wants to do everything herself at the moment, so she’s also a handful,” she added, putting her down in the grass.

“You’re very cute, but I bet you know that already, huh?” Hannah pulled a face at Evi, which made her laugh.

“She’s great, we feel very lucky.” Dani turned to Espen. “Do you mind taking her inside so I can show the ladies around?”

“Not at all.” Espen took Evi’s hand, said something to her in Norwegian, and lifted her up on her feet so she could toddle along back to the house with him. “Hannah, Kristine, make yourselves at home. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

They waved at them, and Hannah took two of the suitcases they’d brought. Kristine also took two and Dani the last one, leading the way up to their cabin.

“I’ll show you your little hideaway first, so we don’t have to drag these around.” She looked over her shoulder and smiled. “We feel so honored that you guys want to get married here in our new resort.”

“We’re so excited,” Kristine said. “And it made total sense for us to get married in Norway as we met here; that week in Kirkenes holds such special memories.”

“I know you wanted to get married in our hotel up north, and I’m sorry we couldn’t make that happen,” Dani said. “When you called me to set a date, we were just in the process of selling. The buyer had big plans for renovations, so he wasn’t sure when he was going to reopen.” She carried the case up to the steps of the small porch and searched for the keys in her pocket. “But if you ask me, this part of the country is way more romantic for a wedding.”

“You’re right; it’s even better.” Hannah put down the cases, took off her hoodie, and tied it around her waist as she glanced over the charming porch. The thatched roofs of the wooden cabins were covered in moss and flowers, red and white checkered curtains hung behind the windows, and a padded porch swing, a coffee table, and two recliners made for a lovely outside seating area next to the front door. “I never thought I’d be wearing just a T-shirt; the weather is amazing.”

“We get very nice summers here. It doesn’t get too warm, but warm enough to take a swim in the lake and get a nice tan.” Dani opened the door and let them in. “I was actually really excited myself when we moved here. It’s nice to have lots of daylight again, I didn’t realize how much I’d missed it.”

“Why did you leave Kirkenes?” Hannah asked.

“Well, we had Evi, and everything changes when you have a baby. Espen and I have traveled a lot, and we both lived in cities when we were younger. We weren’t sure if it was fair to our daughter to bring her up somewhere so secluded, so we started thinking about different options. She got very sick when she was around three months old—she caught pneumonia—and I lived in the hospital in Oslo with her for two weeks. When we came back, I was uncomfortable about being so far away from a good children’s hospital, so that sealed our decision to sell the hotel.”

“That must have been quite a challenge; I remember how dark it was when we visited, and that was only for a few days. I can’t imagine many people wanting to live in the dark for most of the year,” Kristine said. “Even though it’s beautiful up there.”

“Actually, it wasn’t challenging at all, and you’d be surprised how many nature freaks would kill for a life like that. It’s pretty unique, of course, so that helped, too. When we had our hotel valued, we were a little shocked to learn how much it was worth, and it was sold only two weeks after it went on the market.”

“And now you’re here…”

“Now we’re here, and we have more space than we ever dreamed of, plus a private strip of land beside the lake, and we’re only ninety minutes away from Oslo.” Dani opened the curtains to let in the light. “I hope you’ll be comfortable in your ‘hytte’. It’s the Norwegian word for cabin.”

“Are you kidding me? This is adorable.” Kristine squeezed Hannah’s hand as they took in the cozy space. There was a little seating area to their left in front of the windows, and a small kitchenette with a table and four chairs to their right. Handmade blankets were draped over the couch and the armchairs, and the walls were adorned with watercolor paintings of local scenes. Behind a dividing wall in the back stood a big bed, and there was another sleeping area in an alcove in the living room that doubled as a reading space with built-in bookshelves and a reading light.

“Good.” Dani smiled. “The bathroom is in the back, and there’s also a tiny sauna next to it. The cabin is big enough to sleep three more people—one in the reading nook and two on the couch that can be pulled out and made into a bed—but I figured you honeymooners should have your privacy, so don’t worry; you won’t have to share.”

“So, everyone’s okay with the sleeping arrangements?” Hannah asked. “If not, we can share, it’s no problem.”

“Absolutely not, it’s all arranged.” Dani pointed to the field outside. “We had three additional camper vans—or RV’s as you Americans call them—delivered today. They’re luxury ones that come with a tent and a portable firepit, so they should be comfortable enough for everyone, and they’ll provide plenty of additional space.” She handed Kristine the key. “Want me to show you around the site, or are you tired?”

“No, we’d love to see everything.” Kristine gave her a beaming smile. “I saw on your website that you grow your own vegetables. I have a veggie patch myself, so I’m super excited to see it.”

“Kristine is obsessed with growing stuff,” Hannah added with an endearing smile. “You have no idea how many hours she’s slaved over seedlings, caring for them like a newborn.”

“I think you’re going to love our vegetable garden, then. Of course, the climate is very different from Louisiana, so we’re limited to the vegetables and fruits that thrive here.” Dani walked to the kitchen and opened a cupboard. “Let me show you where everything is before we do a tour of the premises.”

Photo by Vidar-Nordli Mathisen

Chapter 2 – Monday

“To the front, as you can see, is the lake,” Dani said when they were back outside. “It’s deep in places, so be careful not to go too far out if you’re not a great swimmer. The other side of the lake is really pretty too, and there are popular hiking trails that lead through the mountains. We have a private dock down by the water and although the water is still chilly this time of year, it’s really nice to swim there.”

“That’s wonderful. I’m looking forward to seeing you in a bikini.” Hannah shot Kristine a flirty smile. “The swamps back home aren’t exactly tempting to dive into, and this looks lush.” The water was so clear that she could see the bottom of the shallows, where fish swam over the rock-covered floor.

“By the way, skinny dipping is totally okay here.” Dani winked. “Also, topless sunbathing is more or less the norm in Norway, so you won’t have to worry about the occasional local hiker passing through. They honestly won’t even blink an eye.”

“Even better.” Kristine looked around, trying to spot the nearest neighbors, and from where they were standing, she could only see a small, red farmhouse and a barn in the distance. It was very, very private indeed.

“This is our house,” Dani said as they neared a cute buttery yellow wooden house with white roses climbing up the trellis on either side of the door. Colorful garden furniture stood at the front, along with a shed that had a chicken run next to it. “The reception area for guests is just through the front door and there’s usually someone there, so just let yourself in if you need anything. We have a handful of sheep and a couple of cows that roam freely, but they tend to stay in the back, on the forest side or in their shelter, at night. Our two full-time employees look after the sheep and the cows, make artisan cheese with their milk, and shear the sheep in spring. We then sell the wool to local craftspeople to make blankets.” Dani had a proud look on her face as she turned the corner, heading toward the back of the house where a white picket fence surrounded a vast veggie patch.

“This is awesome, do you mind if I try some?” Kristine bent over the fence, broke off a piece from one of the plants and smelled it. “Mustard. That’s so exciting.” She picked another sprig and sniffed it. “And dill.”

“Please feel free to try anything. The herbs are here more for convenience; dill grows practically everywhere in the wild around here, but as you can imagine, I don’t have time to go and forage every day. We do get seasonal stuff from the forest, though, like mushrooms and berries.” Dani cast a glance over the neat rows of produce. “Let’s see, apart from herbs, we also grow cauliflower, cabbage, spinach, onions, lettuce, peas…” She paused and narrowed her eyes, trying to work out what was what. “Oh, and kohlrabi, of course. It’s very popular here, and over there we have carrots, beets, asparagus, and watermelon. But we buy stuff too, from the farm shops in town, and from neighboring farmers. This region is known for eco-friendly tourism, so we’re very keen to keep our business sustainable. We serve fresh fish that Espen catches from the lake; he loves fishing so that’s not exactly a chore for him, and we also make our own bread, butter, elderflower lemonade and other things like that.”

“That’s so cool. I’ll have a proper look tomorrow if that’s okay with you,” Kristine said.

“Of course, you can roam around anytime you want.”

Hannah turned to the left and raised a hand above her forehead, shading her eyes from the bright sun. “Is that a farm over there?”

“Yes, the land behind the fence belongs to old Einar, our neighbor, and the forest is part of the Norwegian national parks and is therefore protected,” Dani said. “The land on the other side belongs to a farmer too, but in general, you can walk anywhere you want; they don’t object, and we don’t mind if people pass through on our property either. Einar’s got goats, so don’t forget to close the fence behind you when you leave or return; we don’t want them to get in here.”

“Cute. I love goats.” Despite their long journey, Kristine felt full of energy.

“They’re cute, yes. But they can also be a little intrusive, so be careful.” Dani gestured to a path by the gates. “There’s a hiking trail there; it will take you through the fields, over the hills and into the forest in a big circle, and it ends right over there where the cows are. The fence is charged, so make sure you don’t touch anything apart from the wooden gates.”

“Any wild animals we should be aware of?” Hannah asked.

“Be cautious of moose, we have quite a few around here, and if you go out at night, take a stick with you to rustle the grass in front of you. The noise will scare away snakes and badgers.” Dani chuckled at Kristine’s wide-eyed expression. “Come on, you’re from the land of alligators, surely you can handle a badger or two? Anyway, both Espen and I are trained in first aid, so if anything happens, just call me.”

“I think we’ll be okay.” Hannah smiled at her. “Thank you. I’m really looking forward to spending a week here.”

“We’re delighted to have you, too. As I said, reception is through our front door. Either Espen or I will be there with Evi most of the time, so just come in if you need anything. Breakfast is served from eight to ten every morning, and dinner is at seven. We’ll set up a long table in front of your cabin where everyone can gather, so just let me know if you or your guests plan on walking into town for dinner instead. Oh, and you can use the rowing boat by the dock, and if you’d like to use the motorboat, I can explain how it works; it’s pretty easy.”

“Great. You’re the best, Dani. I feel at home already,” Kristine said.

“That’s what we want.” Dani put her hands in the back pockets of her jeans. “Well, I’m going to get dinner started. I’m sure you’re eager to freshen up and have a rest after your long flight.”

“Yes, a shower would be wonderful right now.” Hannah took Kristine’s hand and gave Dani a wave. “Come on, babe. Let’s get cleaned up and explore.”

Picture by Nandhu Kumar

Chapter 3 – Monday

“You look ravishing, wearing that,” Hannah said, glancing at Kristine’s legs under her short, white summer dress. She looked angelic strolling through the high grass with the sun shining on her happy face. Her long, blonde hair was drying in the wind after their shower, and she kept doing that thing where she tucked it behind her ears over and over. After three years, Hannah’s feelings for the wonderful woman who had conquered her heart had only grown, and she was still so madly in love with her that she couldn’t keep her eyes off Kristine when she was near.

She put an arm around her as they walked along the edge of the hill and passed through the gates. The view was incredibly romantic—a patchwork of fields stretched out before them covered in spikey purple-pink fireweed, yellow meadow buttercups and white daisies—and she was so glad they’d decided to come here to get married. There wasn’t a soul in sight, and both the resort and the neighboring house were mere colored specks in the distance. “It’s so quiet here.”

“Yeah. I love it.” Kristine turned to her and grinned. “So, I have a bucket list and there’s this thing on there…”

“What?” Hannah’s lips pulled into a mischievous smile as she tilted her head and studied Kristine. “I didn’t know you had a bucket list and I’m not sure what’s coming, but that look tells me you’re up to no good.”

“That depends…” To Hannah’s surprise, Kristine stripped off her dress. She tossed it in the grass behind her, leaving her in a delicate light blue lingerie set that looked bewitching against her tanned skin and blue eyes. “You see, I’ve always wanted to make love in a field filled with wildflowers.”

“Is that so?” Hannah’s eyes roamed over her lingerie. “Fuck, you look hot. Is that new?” she asked, inching closer.

“Uh-huh.” Kristine got down in the grass and lifted her arms over her head. “And there’s a lot more where that came from because I plan on seducing you all week.” She shot Hannah a heated glance. “Come join me.”

“How about I make you wait until our wedding night?” Hannah teased. She took off her T-shirt and got down on her knees to straddle Kristine in her torn denim shorts and sports bra. She needed a moment to take Kristine in because she was just such an idyllic sight, lying there. Her golden hair rippling over her toned shoulders made her look like a Nordic goddess, and her toned and curvy frame was surrounded by tall sprigs of grass and little yellow flowers. “You know what? I take that back; you’re too irresistible…”

Hannah leaned in and kissed her softly, but Kristine pulled her closer and deepened the kiss, moaning as Hannah’s body covered her own. Moving a hand under Kristine’s blue bra, she sighed as she felt her nipples harden against her fingertips. “As much as I love this bra, I really, really want to take it off,” she mumbled against her mouth.

Kristine nodded, her pulse quickening as she steadied herself on her elbows so Hannah could unclasp it and take it off. The sight of her full breasts made Hannah take in a quick breath, and she licked her lips as she moved down Kristine’s body to run her tongue over her nipples.

“Fuck, Hannah…” Kristine arched her back, raising her chest to meet Hannah’s mouth. “You know exactly how to…” Her voice trailed off, and she moaned as Hannah slipped a hand into her panties and cupped her center.

“How to what?” Hannah asked in a teasing tone, her mouth still on Kristine’s breasts. “You mean like this?”

“Oh God!” Kristine’s hips jerked up when Hannah pushed two fingers inside her and bit down on her nipple. She smiled against her breast as she felt her squirm. Although she vaguely registered the sound of bells somewhere in the distance, she was too focused on Kristine and the delicious sounds she was making to realize what was happening.

A loud bleating noise behind her made her stop and turn around, and at the same time, Kristine’s eyes widened as she screamed at the sight of at least a dozen goats charging toward them. The two goats who were already there were fighting over her dress, their goatees swinging from side to side as they both chewed and pulled separate ends.

Hannah jumped up and managed to save her T-shirt before one of the other goats got to it. “Fuck. Come on, let’s go.”

“But my dress…” Kristine grabbed her bra, then decided there was no time to put it on as all eyes were on the dangling blue object in her hand now.

“Forget about the dress, it’s too late.” Hannah took Kristine’s hand and they made a run for it. She’d expected the goats to follow, but they seemed happy enough with the white fabric that she could hear being torn apart as they rushed through the gates and closed them.

“I heard the noise, so I thought I’d better come and check,” Dani said in an amused tone as she came walking up to them. “What is it with you two and getting yourselves in trouble? I seem to recall an incident where you’d locked yourself out in the freezing cold wearing nothing but blankets, and now…” She laughed as she glanced at Kristine’s arms folded across her naked chest and the goats in the neighboring field, running around with strips of white fabric. “Now, this.”

“Hey, you could have warned us about the goats,” Kristine said with a sheepish look on her face.

“I did!” Dani laughed even harder now, tears rolling down her cheeks as she took off her cardigan and handed it to Kristine to cover herself up. “Oh boy, the goats. They’re not aggressive, but yes, they will chew anything they consider a tasty meal, and that includes textiles. I’ve had tourists abandon their cars because they opened the doors to feed them, despite all the signs warning against that. The goats climbed into their car and ripped out chunks of the chair upholstering.”

“Jesus…” Kristine stared at her in disbelief as she put on the cardigan, but Dani seemed serious.

“So, let me give you some advice,” Dani continued with a smirk while she tried to compose herself. “If you’re planning on getting undressed in the wild again, make sure you don’t hear any bells. The goats roam around freely and they’re not always near but when they see people, they’re hoping to find a snack. They feed on grass and the grass here is of such a fantastic quality—you’ll know when you try Einar’s cheese—but once they’ve had a taste of sandwiches, cakes, or even a shoe, they won’t forget. Ever.”

“We’ll keep that in mind.” Hannah rolled her eyes lovingly at Kristine and gave her a kiss on her cheek. “You and your bucket list.”

Dani laughed. “Bucket list, huh? Well, I hope you got to cross that particular item off.”

“Well, let’s just say the goats were never a part of my fantasy.” Kristine shuffled on the spot, looking at the herd of big, white goats who all seemed to be staring at her now. “Are they going to be okay?” she asked. “After eating my dress?”

“Yeah, they’ll be fine. They occasionally steal laundry from our washing line when people forget to close the gates.” Dani shrugged. “Sorry about your dress.”

“It’s fine. I packed plenty of dresses.” Kristine held up her bra and laughed. “At least I managed to save my expensive lingerie.”

Picture by Y. Kvam

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Traveling during COVID

I’ve just arrived in Bermuda to work on my next novel. Although it’s lovely to be away again, it’s a different world now and I won’t lie; it can be a little daunting to get from A to B. During the preparation, paperwork and testing leading up to my journey, I thought back to the ‘good old days’ when everything was simple. If I wanted to go somewhere, I’d book a train, a rental car or a flight, and I went. I usually left accommodation until the very last minute. Sometimes, I didn’t book anything and just followed my intuition or asked locals for tips. For the first time since I started traveling, I had to prepare everything in detail, and let me tell you, that took a lot of time. I thought I’d share my experience for those of you who are thinking of flying somewhere. Here it goes:

The preparation
Twelve days before departure: I didn’t feel like my current travel insurance was good enough, so I went shopping for a one-off deal with an extensive medical cover and accommodation in case I got stranded.
Seven days before departure: I was tested for COVID, then prayed my results would be in on time to apply for Bermuda travel authorization. This is a test done by a private lab and costs £175. Luckily, I got my negative result 2 days before my flight, but all in all, it was very close with only one day to spare by the time I got my authorization.
Basically, my mindset shifted from ‘I’m going’ to ‘I might be going if I’m lucky’, and I was okay with that. Make sure you have a last-minute cancellation cover on your flight and accommodation as that will take away some of the stress.
When I arrived in Bermuda, I had to show my ‘fit for travel certificate’. I was then tested again ($75) in a tent set up outside the airport, before taking a taxi straight to my Airbnb, where I self-isolated until I got the (negative) results. During my stay, I’m required to get tested twice more, and then I’ll do one last test when I land back in the UK (another £175), where again, I’ll be self-isolating in a hotel in London until I get my results. The last one is not mandatory and purely to make sure I don’t pass anything on to others. Still, even without it, that’s a lot of testing. It doesn’t come cheap, so keep that in mind when you see a heavily discounted holiday in a country where ‘fit for travel certificates’ are required.

Packing over COVID is a whole different thing, too. There’s no need for make-up, as I’ll be wearing a mask and mainly just be by myself. I also had to bring a thermometer as I’m required to take my temperature three times a day and upload the results onto an app. I won’t be going out either, so I left my glad rags at home. Instead, I packed food in case my arrival test would take longer than usual to process. I never thought I’d be filling ¼ of my suitcase with noodles, cereal bars and instant coffee!
Usually, it takes me about ten minutes to pack as I just throw whatever I can find in my suitcase, but to avoid having to go into shops, I made a list and made sure I had everything I needed.

The Journey
I stayed in a hotel close to London Gatwick Airport the night before my flight. Due to COVID, there was no night staff when I arrived, but they’d left my key in an envelope with my name on for me. It’s a small, family-run business, and they’ve had to furlough most of their staff as they’ve been missing out on their airport traffic. When I got to my room, it was a sauna. The heating was on full blast, and in an attempt to turn it off, I pulled off the knob by accident and was unable to put it back on. After several fruitless attempts to fix it while burning my hands, I gave up and went in search of tools as there was no one there to help me or move me to another room. Roaming the hotel’s corridors, I found the kitchen (super creepy in the middle of the night, got some ice cubes for my drink), and finally, a staff storage room. There were no tools, but I did find a big standing fan that I dragged down the stairs and into my room, where I aimed it at my bed. Then I opened the window fully (ground floor, also creepy) and managed to sleep through the night. It was certainly an interesting hotel experience, and I had a good laugh about it with the manager the next day, who was super apologetic and sweet and drove me to the airport, together with his dog Walter.

Gatwick airport was blissfully quiet, and the flight was pleasant as the plane wasn’t full. Passengers stayed in their seats instead of pacing up and down the aisle. The airline provided antibacterial wipes, etc., and all the food was wrapped. It felt very clean and safe.

Accommodation
I usually like to be in the middle of the action and prefer staying in a city so I can properly soak up the atmosphere but like most people, I don’t want to be in crowds right now. My Airbnb is remote, located at the very Northern tip of the island, and the view from my patio is breath-taking. Non-residents are not allowed to drive here and there’s not much public transport, but I love walking and it’s only a half-hour walk into St George’s. Overall, it will be 12 days of solitude, just me and my laptop, which means I’ll be able to get lots of words down.

So, here I am on the veranda, with a million-dollar view, an instant coffee, and already super inspired. It was so worth it.

Let me tell you a scary story

Lady Grim, a Halloween anthology with stories from 13 great authors, is now available for pre-order, and I’m super excited to be a part of it. My story ‘The Grand Malum’ is mainly set between two hotels; ‘The Bonum Hotel’ and ‘The Grand Malum,’ both sitting along a deserted mountain road in Virginia. If you’ve had Latin in school, you may have an idea where the story is heading.

Do you believe in ghosts? I do.

I won’t give anything away about my short story, but I will tell you about my own paranormal experience, twenty-one years ago.

I was seventeen and visiting my father and his wife in London. They’d spent a year renovating this huge redbrick Victorian mansion on Elgin Avenue in Maida Vale, a leafy residential neighbourhood, and had only just moved in. 

Although the house was beautiful – filled with antiques and restored to perfection – I felt uncomfortable there but didn’t mention this as they were so proud of it. 

They put me up in a lovely bedroom with an ensuite upstairs, and that first night, I had trouble sleeping. When I woke up from a restless dream around 2 am, the room looked different from before, and that confused me. The white walls were now covered with red wallpaper, and I remember sitting up in bed, wondering what was going on. There was a shimmer in the air, like a highway mirage, yet the room felt unusually cold.

The bathroom door opened, and a woman walked out of with a silver tea tray. She was wearing a yellow dress and a white apron. Her hair was long and gray, pinned up neatly, and round glasses were sitting low on her nose. The impression I got from the way she looked was that she came from another time. I assumed it was a dream, so I didn’t panic but instead tried to wake myself up.

But then she looked at me as if she’d only just become aware of my presence, and at that point, I became so scared that I couldn’t breathe. It didn’t feel like a dream anymore, but at the same time, she didn’t feel real either. What I knew for sure, though, was that there was something very, very wrong about her.

I think I screamed because my father and his wife came upstairs and tried to shake me out of my terrified, frozen state. I was in shock, shivering with fear and cold for hours after that. 

When I was finally able to speak again and described my experience, this was what they told me:

*They’d stripped red wallpaper from the walls in my room during the renovation.

*There used to be a food lift where the bathroom was now.

*They’d flown over a psychic woman from Poland only a month before because the housekeeper’s five-year-old son kept talking up the stairs as if he could see something others couldn’t, and the pets in the house frequently became restless and frightened. My father and his wife had felt uncomfortable, too, at times.

*The psychic woman had performed a ritual to rid the house of evil spirits 

I slept downstairs, and the next day, they called the psychic woman as clearly her ritual had not worked. She told them to pack up and get out of there as she felt something terrible was about to happen. They didn’t – it was their house after all, and although they were planning on selling it, they hadn’t even put it up on the market yet. 

A couple of weeks later – by that time I was back in the Netherlands – my father and his wife were out for the night and got a phone call from the neighbors, who urged them to come home immediately. 

The house had spontaneously caught fire.

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Read the first three chapters of ‘Masquerade’ by Madeleine Taylor!

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‘Masquerade’ by Madeleine Taylor will be out on 27/08/2020 and is now available for pre-order through the link at the bottom.

Chapter 1

I’m a little nervous as I follow my friend Tessa past the long rows of enormous properties that make up the Garden District in New Orleans. She insisted we come here tonight and although I was excited while we were shopping for our costumes and masks this afternoon, my normally self-assured demeanor is starting to crumble now that I’m about to enter a party in a city that I only stepped foot in last night and where I don’t know anyone apart from Tessa.

“These houses are out of this world,” I murmur, peeking through the gates to admire the huge yards and pristine pools. “Are you sure we’re dressed appropriately?”

“Are you serious? You look fabulous, Ivy.” The masked party being thrown in her friend’s huge house is supposed to be the place to be tonight and we’ve gone all out, following the ‘Black & White masquerade’ dress code printed on the formal invitation.

“Thank you. So do you.” I stare down at my long, black dress and decide that I do indeed, look fabulous. It’s vintage and has lace trumpet sleeves that match the skirt part. The black corset I’m wearing over it makes me look a little gothic, and in combination with my black Venetian style feathered mask, long, dark hair and naturally pale face I could very well pass for a ghost in the dark. “And I can’t believe how fast you’ve managed to make friends, considering you only moved here just over five weeks ago.”

“What can I say, people are just naturally drawn to me.” Tessa bats her eyelashes at me before she pulls her mask over her face, letting me know we’re close. She’s wearing a white dress we found in the same store. With her blonde hair and white feather adorned mask, we’re quite the pair, and passers-by are staring at us from a restaurant terrace as we turn a corner looking like ballerinas about to audition for the leads in Swan Lake.

“This one?” I ask incredulously as she stops in front of a huge house that looks stunning and even grander than the pastel-colored French colonial buildings next door.

“Yeah, I think this is it,” Tessa says, checking the details.

“How can you not be sure? I thought you knew…” I take the elegantly designed invitation from her and read the name of the host. “Countess Montgomery, which I assume is an alias.”

“Knowing is a strong word,” Tessa says as the heavy cast-iron gates open, and we’re asked by the security team to step into the front yard. An enchanting fountain sits on the lawn to our right. It’s lit up from below, the five cherubs in the middle shooting jets of water through their raised trumpets. The beautiful mansion is painted white with pastel green windowsills and shutters. A wide balcony with ornate railings runs along the second floor with French doors painted in the same shade of green. Large trees covered in Spanish moss are lined up on both sides of the long driveway that leads to the front door, and the many lanterns in the trees make for a spectacular sight.

A dozen or so women who have just arrived are hanging out by the gates. Some are wearing suits, but most of them are dressed in skimpy dresses, or very little but an elaborate mask and elegant lingerie with a separate train or a tuxedo jacket. Although they’ve all respected the black and white theme, their outfits are a lot more daring than ours, and I’m starting to wonder if we got the dress code wrong.

Studying the guests, I make a second observation and voice it. “I don’t see any men here.” Not that I mind; men are not my thing and I’m here to have some fun.

“You’re right. I think we may be in luck tonight.” Tessa smirks. “It’s been a while since I’ve been to a women-only party.”

My eyes are drawn to a woman in a short, black latex dress, smoking a cigarette under one of the trees by the gates. She’s wearing a mask that looks like lead has melted over half her face; silver wax-like drips run down her dark cheeks to complete the effect, but I can see from what’s exposed that she’s very pretty. Wild curls frame her mahogany face, and the mask accentuates her full lips. Another woman joins her wearing a sharp-tailored black suit. She has short, slicked back dark hair and is wearing a distinctly shaped Phantom of the Opera mask. Her eyes are so black that I wonder if she’s wearing contacts as she stares at me, sizing me up like prey. It’s giving me chills, yet I can’t help but look at her, too.

“Good evening,” Tessa says, flashing the invitation at one of the female security guards.

“Good evening.” A woman the size of a tree looks down at Tessa and raises a brow. “Password?”

I glance at Tessa, whose eyes flash back and forth between me, the talking tree and the street behind us. “It’s ehm…” Tessa shuffles on the spot, then lets out a deep sigh. “Fuck.”

I groan at her, because by now, I know exactly what’s going on. “Where did you get that invitation from?” I whisper at her. “Be honest. It’s clear you weren’t invited.”

“I found it,” Tessa says in a thin voice, looking deflated as her shoulders drop. “On the floor of the public restrooms, in the hotel I was staying at before I got the keys to my apartment.”

“No password, no entry,” the tree-like woman says in a friendly but pressing tone, gesturing to the gates for us to leave.

“I can’t believe you pulled this on me again,” I mumble in embarrassment, remembering New Year’s Eve, the last time she falsely claimed to have been invited to an exclusive party in New York, where we both lived at the time. “I’m thirty-five and you’ve made me try to crash a party for the second time in a year. It’s embarrassing beyond belief.”

Tessa doesn’t reply, clearly mortified herself, but just as we’re about to leave, the woman in the suit walks up to us. “Wait, they’re with me,” she says to the security guard before taking my hand, bending forward and kissing the top of it. Her lips press so softly against my skin that I can barely feel it, yet a shiver runs through me as I watch her bow. Something about her is incredibly sensual, and I’m curious to know what’s behind the mask.

“Miss…?” Her voice is low and husky.

“Miss Black,” I lie, not feeling entirely comfortable giving my surname to a stranger, even if the stranger has just saved us from humiliation.

“Welcome to the party, Miss Black.” The woman turns to Tessa. “Then you must be Miss White?” An amused smile plays around her lips. “Are you… together?”

“No,” I’m quick to say, unsure why I desperately want her to know I’m single. Tessa is my ex, but our attraction faded over twelve years ago and we’ve been best friends ever since. We recently agreed during a drunken night that we’d rather chew our arms off than sleep with each other again, so there’s never even been as much as a flirty comment between us since we were in our early twenties.

“Good.” The woman’s smile widens. “Let me introduce myself. In case you hadn’t worked it out I’m the Phantom, and this is my friend Stephanie,” she says when the woman in the latex dress joins us. “Stephanie, will you show Miss White to the bar, please? I’ll make sure Miss Black gets a drink.” She holds out her arm and instinctively I hook mine through it as I glance at Tessa, who is being whisked away by the other woman.

I can’t say I’m entirely comfortable around the Phantom, as she calls herself; she’s persistent, acting as if she’s already got me in her pocket, and I’m aware of the heavy gates closing behind me. When I observe guests entering the mansion, I note that they have a strange air about them, and that the atmosphere is way darker than I expected. The idea of finding Tessa and sneaking out after one drink crosses my mind, but first, I need to apologize. “I’m terribly sorry about gate-crashing the party,” I say, looking up at her. “My friend told me she knew the hostess, but that’s clearly not the case.”

“Don’t worry about it.” My handsome companion takes a tighter hold of my arm as she leads me to the entrance. “I know most people here and you’re with me, now. I couldn’t have wished for a better surprise than a gorgeous stranger showing up unexpectedly, so please allow me the pleasure of your company, at least for a little while.”

 

 

Chapter 2

“Cocktail?” The Phantom hands me a tall glass with a black liquid that smells faintly of licorice. “There’s champagne at the other bar if you prefer, but I thought this suited your looks tonight.”

“Thank you.” I take a sip and let it roll over my palette. “It’s good.”

“Of course.” She says it as if it’s a given that anything this party has to offer is good. “It has a couple of secret ingredients, but don’t worry—it’s all natural.”

“Are you telling me the drinks are spiked?” I raise a brow at her and tilt my head.

“No. I’m saying the cocktail contains certain herbs. There’s nothing synthetic in there and it won’t make you go crazy or do anything you don’t want to do.” She winks. “It might enhance your desires, though.”

As her words linger between us, I contemplate handing the drink back and leaving, but I can’t seem to tear myself away from her. She has an air about her that draws me in, and I find her incredibly attractive. In desperate need of liquid courage, and for no reason other than that my intuition tells me it’s okay, I decide to trust her and take another sip. “Very well, I’ll take your word for it.”

I must admit, the place looks very, very impressive as she offers her arm and shows me around. Two bars are set up in the spacious living room that is dimly lit and decorated with antique furniture, rich tapestries, huge chandeliers and exquisite, old oil paintings. Despite the opulence, I can see that the furniture is worn-out, and that there has been little maintenance done in the past years. It must be terribly expensive to maintain a house like this, but the paintwork that is chipped in places and the slightly damaged wallpaper, only adds to the charm.

The scent of incense hangs thick in the air and my sight is blurred by the occasional clouds of mist coming from the dry ice machine behind the DJ booth, which is set up in a corner of the room. An androgynous looking woman dressed in nothing but a pair of black shorts and a tuxedo jacket, is playing a slow, eerie tune that adds to the mysterious, laid-back vibe. In the middle of the room, the furniture has been cleared, and women are slow dancing, which is something I haven’t done since my high school graduation party.

People are everywhere, loitering on the sweeping staircase that leads up from the grand hallway and we spot others in various rooms as we pass their open doorways. The staff hired for tonight are dressed in simple black suits and black masks, and it’s kind of intriguing not being able to see anyone’s faces. Perhaps my companion is the most intriguing of all; her nonchalance and total confidence making me more and more curious by the minute. She’s clearly interested in me too, as she hasn’t taken her intense black eyes off me for a second and is blatantly ignoring everyone else.

“So, does the Phantom have a first name?” I ask.

She tilts her head and takes a sip of her drink, and her smile sends shivers down my spine. “Not tonight. Tonight, I’m just the Phantom.”

“Right.” I chuckle. “So, is The Phantom of the Opera your favorite musical?”

“Not quite.”

“Okay,” I say, wondering why it’s so damn hard to get any information out of this woman. She’s clearly not one for small talk. “Well, my name is…”

“Shh…” She hushes me, placing her thumb on my lips and it’s making me tingle all over. “Don’t you like the anonymity we’ve got going on here?” She leans in closer to whisper in my ear. “Don’t you like the idea of having a mind-blowing night with a stranger who will please you in ways you can’t even begin to imagine?”

Her last question makes me take in a quick breath, and as my lips part, she keeps her thumb there, wedging it between them. It sets me on fire and parts of me that have been neglected in the past year suddenly come to life, reminding me of what I’ve been missing. I can’t say the thought of kissing her hasn’t crossed my mind in the ten minutes I’ve spent in her company. Her lips are alluring, and her eyes have something dark and dangerous about them that arouses me each time she looks at me. Sex with a stranger is not something I’d normally even consider, but still, I make no effort to remove her thumb. Quite the opposite; I fight the urge to suck it into my mouth, and when she straightens herself and pulls her hand away, I feel a flicker of disappointment.

“I don’t know what to say to that.”

“But it’s simple.” Again, there’s that stare. “Does that idea turn you on, or not?” Awaiting my answer, she takes my drink from me and puts it down before she pulls me in by my waist, drawing me against her. “Never mind, where are my manners? I should at least offer you a dance to give you time to think about it.”

I’m grateful for the dancefloor as I’m not sure I can manage to hold a conversation after her indecent proposal, so I let her lead the way.

“Do you know how masked balls started?” she asks, pressing her hand firmly into the small of my back.

“No,” I whisper, aware of the alarming lack of distance between our lips. “Tell me.” I’m not a great dancer and I have no idea what I’m doing, but it doesn’t matter. There’s music, we’re moving, and our physical closeness feels amazing. It’s been a while since I’ve felt a woman’s body against my own, and hers does not disappoint. Strong arms, her thigh brushing between my legs each time she takes a step forward, her hips against mine…

“Balls have a long history, but masks were first worn during carnival season, where big indulgent celebrations were held before Lent; generally seen as a time of somber fasting,” the Phantom says. “People wore masks to hide their identity, so they could drink as much as they wanted, express controversial opinions and even have sex with people from different social classes, without having to face the consequences. Masks gave them the anonymity they needed to be free. Eighteenth-century masked balls were especially of an erotic nature.” She pauses, and her lips pull into a smile. “I feel like indulging tonight. Do you?”

“I think I do,” I hear myself say, but I’m not sure if I mean it. Although my body wants to, from the way it’s reacting to her, it seems a little extreme for me. I came here with the intention of maybe meeting some new people, to have some fun, to flirt a little but not to dive under the covers with a stranger.

Scanning the crowd and simultaneously searching for Tessa, I notice a lot of people are making out and, in some cases, it’s getting very heated. Considering it’s not even ten pm, I doubt any of these people are too drunk to realize what they’re doing. There’s a voyeuristic atmosphere, as if by some silent understanding, it’s okay for them to do whatever they want here tonight. “What kind of party is this?” I ask, not sure if I’m ready for the answer.

“The fun kind. The hedonistic kind.” The Phantom moves her hand lower, so that she can caress my behind and she then roughly squeezes it. “Are you okay with that?”

I bite my lip and nod, then realize what I’ve just done and shake my head. “Not my scene,” I say, still drawn to her mouth. It’s like I can’t take my eyes off her lips, and I’m dying to know what’s under the mask. Her short hair is gelled back, the way a fifties salesman would wear it, or perhaps phantoms, if they were real.

“Then you shouldn’t have gate-crashed.” She winks, letting me know she’s joking. “If you want me to walk you out, I will, but I can’t help thinking it would be a waste of a wonderful opportunity for both of us.”

I choose not to answer, buying myself time. Finally, I spot Tessa on a chaise in the corner of the room, talking to Stephanie. They’re sitting next to each other and Stephanie already has her arm around her. Seeing how engaged Tessa looks, I know that I won’t be able to drag her away from the woman if I try, but I have a spare key to her apartment, so it doesn’t really matter. I’ll leave when I want to leave, I tell myself, although I’m not totally sure what I really want regarding anything at this point. My seductive temptress of a phantom has planted a seed in my mind, and I keep wondering what it would feel like if she kissed me.

The song comes to an end, and the Phantom takes my hand and leads us back to the bar. “How about another drink, Miss Black?”

 

 

Chapter 3

“So, what do people talk about without giving anything away about themselves?” I ask when we’re sitting on a couch in something that looks like a reception room. There are fewer people in here, but the vibe is the same; steamy, heated, sexual. No one is taking it any further than kissing so far, but their hands have started to wander now, and it’s hard not to look. “I can’t ask you about your name, how you know the hostess, or what you do for a living,” I continue, desperate to take my mind off the woman opposite me, whose hand is now making its way up another woman’s thigh.

“We could talk about what you’d like me to do to you in bed,” she suggests matter-of- factly, making my heart rate go up so fast that I clutch onto my chest. “I take it from your reaction that public intimacy isn’t your thing, but I have a nice room upstairs. Countess Montgomery is fine with me using it and it’s very private.”

“Of course you do.” I can’t help but laugh because she’s simply not giving up. After my second drink though, I’m feeling more relaxed and the chemistry between us is explosive.

“Well?” She arches a brow. “What do you want, Miss Black?”

A blush rises to my cheeks and I hide behind my glass. Being a professional nightclub singer, I’m not normally the shy retiring type, but I seem to have lost my ability to speak tonight. “I’m not sure if I know what I want. Not right now, anyway.”

My seductress nods, the corners of her mouth tugging up. “Then maybe you should let me decide what you want. Do you like handing over control?”

“What do you mean by that?”

“You know very well what I mean. Does the idea of me being in command appeal to you?”

“No.” As the answer leaves my lips in a breathy whimper, I know I’m lying. Although I’ve had many fantasies, I’ve never submitted to anyone. “Maybe.”

“Maybe means you’re curious. Are you curious, Miss Black?” Her eyes flash back at me and I let out a quiet breath before I finally give in.

“Yes.”

It’s just one word, but somehow, I feel like that one word is about to change my world. A rush of heat spreads between my thighs, making me quiver. Clearly, I want this more that I realized, and if I’m ever going to try something totally out of my comfort zone, it might as well be with an anonymous stranger who I will never see again.

“Are you sure?” Her hand slides up my thigh, making my chest heave. “You know what? It doesn’t matter; you can change your mind anytime.” A gentle squeeze is all the encouragement I need, because all I can think of now is having that hand in other places. I have no idea how she’s done it, but within the span of an hour, I’ve agreed to go upstairs with her and let her do God knows what to me.

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“Then let’s explore together.” Taking my glass from me, the Phantom stands up and holds out her hand. “Let me show you to the room.”

My legs are trembling as I get up, but deep down, I know I’ll regret it if I don’t do this tonight. I told Tessa earlier I was ready to have some fun again, after my girlfriend left me for someone else eight months ago, and this woman is not only devilishly attractive and charming, but the sexual chemistry is like nothing I’ve ever felt before. My body is craving to be touched again, and her fleeting caresses and dark eyes have set me on fire. “Wait… I need to check on Tessa.”

“I have no doubt she’s enjoying herself.” The Phantom leads me to the living room, where I see Tessa making out with Stephanie in a big armchair. She’s draped half on top of her and she seems to have been sucked into the same sexual energy as everyone else. It’s typical Tessa, throwing herself into the arms of the first woman who pays her attention—she’s always been that way—but Stephanie is smoking hot and I’m happy for her. Besides, I’m in no position to judge her as I’m about to do exactly the same thing myself.

“Tessa,” I say, gently nudging her shoulder.

“Oh, hey.” Tessa looks from me to Stephanie and back as if I’ve just woken her up from a spell. Realizing her bra is visible, she frowns and pulls the shoulder strap of her dress back up. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I’ll just be gone for a bit. Do you mind?”

Glancing down at Stephanie, she grins before she turns back to me. “No, I don’t mind. I’ll be right here if you need me.”

“Are you okay?” I have to ask, because even for her, this is unusual behavior. “Do you feel weird in any way?”

“No. I feel…” Tessa takes a moment to think about it, then says, “I just feel immensely turned on, that’s all.” Then Stephanie pulls her back toward her mouth and they fall into another heated kiss like I’m not even there.

The Phantom doesn’t seem to think this is strange at all, and judging by the situation in the room, I know we need to either leave or join in, being the only voyeurs among many heated bodies. Groups have started to form naturally, a mysterious organic attraction pulling women together and I can see where this is heading. Concluding Tessa is fine, I take a deep breath and give my new friend a look that tells her I’m ready.

We walk up two flights of the broad staircase and head for a door at the end of the corridor. There’s nothing but silence between us, but it’s not uncomfortable. On the contrary—it only adds to the excitement and anticipation that is growing inside of me. I’ve just surrendered to my fate for the night, even though I have no idea what will happen. She takes a key out of her pocket and unlocks the door. “After you.”