In the sequel to 'His 16th Face' by Stephanie Van Orman, Beth Coldwell could not be more in love with Christian Henderson. If only all the terrible things he warned her about hadn't come true. Now that she is part of his world, she is chained up in a castle on Tombstone Mountain with a steel ring through her ankle. She's alone, except for the visitors that plague her with questions and demands. Where's Christian in all of this? Beth's kidnappers want him as far away from her as possible.
How can she escape? The answers lie in the Red Forest... a place that needs a serious makeover.
Screaming Through Glass
I was in the changing room of a high-end clothing boutique. Christian was choosing clothes for me. This time, he was buying me a dress. The frock I was trying on was pink blush with thousands of sequins and feathered material in the skirt. The price tag read that it was forty-six thousand dollars, but I was choosing a dress to wear to an important event, so the price tag didn’t matter.
I parted the curtain of the changing room and stepped out into the open. It was the most luxurious clothing store I had ever been in. Sunlight came into the room from a skylight and reflected on the mirrors that surrounded me, giving me a perfect view of what I looked like in the dress.
Christian entered the room with a steady stride holding a white dress that could only be a wedding dress. For once, his face was not a disguise. His nose was so pointed, he looked like all his lies had caught up with him. His hair was blond and spiked like he still wanted to do his hair like Rogan. With his characteristic careless smile, he asked me to try the dress on.
I took it from him, smiling too because I couldn’t help it. “You want me to try this on?” I took the dress from him and examined its folds. “Are you asking me to marry you?”
His expression changed to the smirk that dared me to be different. “I’m asking you to try it on.” He took a step back from me and leaned against the doorframe.
I turned my back on him and was about to slip behind the curtain when his voice stopped me.
“You don’t need to hide.”
“I said, you don’t need to hide.” He looked at me with eyes that were both patient and curious. He sought to test my limits.
“I don’t want the shop girls to see me,” I replied smoothly.
“I wouldn’t worry about them,” he said. “They’ve seen women without their clothes. They’re dressmakers. Besides, they’re too busy to bother popping in here. We’re alone. It’s fine. Take your clothes off.”
I was uncomfortable, but I didn’t like to balk. I wanted to marry him. I had told him so. Certainly, I had meant it. Swallowing a lump in my throat, I undid the concealed zipper in the side of the blush gown and allowed it to fall to the floor. Standing there in my bra and panties, I reached for the wedding gown.
Christian was smiling at me, but it wasn’t a smile I had seen lately. It was a smile reserved for when he placated an innocent child. I was the child in this scenario.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
“This isn’t what I meant when I asked you to show yourself to me.”
He cleared his throat and clarified. “I meant for you to strip, not down to your underwear, but down to the bone.”
Glancing at one of the many mirrors that faced me, I now saw the skin above my breasts was gone and I was staring at my bare ribcage, and the heart inside me pulsed behind ribs like prison bars.
My panic was interfering with my judgment. The grin that played on Christian’s face was one I’d never seen before.
What did a smile like that mean? It wasn’t the smile he wore when he dared me to be something more. It wasn’t the smile he wore when he said goodbye. What was that expression? Was it pride?
My hands reached for my chest, but I could feel nothing as I tried to slide my fingers between my ribs, feeling for his heart inside me like I was reaching for a star—nothing I could hold in my hands.
At that point, my dream had become too far-fetched for me to accept as reality. I woke up, replacing my inner vision with the blackness around me. This chair here, the bed pointed in this direction, and squares of soft light coming in patches from recognizable locations.
I was on Tombstone Mountain in the castle made to test immortals. In my bed, I was dreaming of a Christian who did things the real Christian would never do. He didn’t tease me about stripping for his amusement or suggest that having his heart made me his possession. My brain was making up garbage while I was asleep, which meant I was having a nightmare.
In the dark, I felt the metal ring that kept me a prisoner. It was not around my ankle the way it had been when I first arrived. Instead, it was pierced through the skin between my Achilles tendon and my ankle bones. Using the Red Forest, I had been able to push it through skin, vein, and tendon, but pushing it through the bone was impossible. I knew now that was why my body had directed the bullet in my brain down my throat when I had been shot in the head. There were pathways there that didn’t involve penetrating bone.
My inability to manipulate bone also meant that the hole in my head where the bullet went in was not completely healed. Everything was where it was supposed to be, but the bone wasn’t intact.
I didn’t understand why bone should behave differently than the other parts of my body, all of which seemed to be at my command. I had considered breaking my ankle more than once to remove the ring, but I knew Brandon, my captor, wouldn’t stand for it. I’d wake up with the ring on my other ankle and have to start all over again. The ankle I’d broken would still be broken like the dime-sized hole in my head I hadn’t been able to fill.
It was dark outside. It was dark almost all day, every day. I had to be very far north to have so few hours of daylight. Christian had not come to rescue me. It was like waiting for him in the hotel when I ran away from boarding school to get his attention, except less fun because I had visitors.
Sometimes, Brandon and Pricina came to see me.
The immortals were not normal and they enjoyed showing me their grand abilities. Pricina would raise a piece of glass in the middle of the room and once it had filled the whole space from wall to wall, from floor to ceiling, she and Brandon would enter the room and sit on the other side. Sometimes, they just came in through a door. Sometimes they had to move stones in order to make a doorway for them to enter. Each block moved smoothly and nonsensically, exactly the way I ordered my cells around in the Red Forest. Once they had made themselves comfortable, Pricina would make holes in the glass. Tiny little holes for us to speak through and Brandon would begin.
It was always the same.
“Have you been going to the Red Forest?” Brandon would ask briskly.
“You’ve been watching me, so you must know that I have been,” I would reply.
I probably spent half of each day sitting on my ankle bone in the Red Forest. In my mind, it looked like a bridge made of bone. I could see the whole silver ring from my place in the Red Forest, even though only a small portion of the ring was actually in my body. The ring was laced through the bone bridge. It hung over brown bloodied land and a river of sparkling ruby waves (my body’s depiction of a bloodstream). I spent my time there trying to find another way to get the metal ring through the bone rather than the one Brandon was about to suggest.
“Why won’t you go to the heart?” he asked, forgetting all about his old Scottish accent. Now he spoke with an accent so strange I couldn’t identify it. His new voice made him seem like more of a stranger than when he was mute. Alien to me, he continued, “It is the entrance to all of Christian’s knowledge.”
I would roll my eyes. This line of conversation was difficult to listen to because he and Pricina didn’t want Christian. That was why Brandon had left him behind when he kidnapped me by the side of the road. They didn’t want him because the important part of him was inside me, riding around in my chest like I was a fancy safety deposit box. Without his heart, it seemed, Christian did not know who he was. He knew he was immortal, but he didn’t know the details. How did he become immortal? He didn’t know. How do you make another person immortal? Still, he didn’t know beyond an educated guess. He didn’t know the inner workings, and Brandon and Pricina wanted answers to more difficult questions than those.
“If you open his heart and go inside, you’ll learn everything you need to know,” Brandon said, attempting to sound persuasive.
It didn’t sound persuasive to me. We had been doing this for months. That was why there was so little light in the castle. It had been the end of summer when I had been kidnapped. We had slipped into autumn, passed the equinox, and my birthday. Now as we came closer to the winter solstice, the night was so deep, it was practically outer space.
I hated them.
I hated Brandon and how I had once trusted him. Christian had trusted him!
In my rage, I had attempted to break the glass between us more than once. I threw a chair. I threw lamps. I threw myself.
It didn’t matter what I did, Pricina could do more than alter her body. She could alter the matter that surrounded her. Any glass I broke would immediately reform into a glistening sheet. She could do it so quickly I couldn’t even reach Brandon to slap him across the face before the glass was remade.
Otherwise, she leaned back in whatever seat she occupied and smoothed her brown skin like a cat grooming itself. She was a lot like a cat. Her face did not show that she felt one way or another about the interviews she oversaw with Brandon and me. She never spoke or took a side. Her sole purpose was to keep the glass in place. She was elegant and beautiful far beyond anyone I had ever seen. Her creamy beauty made Felicity-Ann (who I had once envied for her appearance) look crude and tacky. It was tempting to hate her as much as Brandon, who I thoroughly hated now, but it was impossible. She didn’t do anything hateful. She merely protected Brandon by keeping the glass up.
Slowly, her presence helped me understand. “Why do you bring her?” I asked Brandon in a tone that was accusing. “Can’t you keep the glass up yourself?”
“Uh,” he replied, taken off-guard.
It was true! He didn’t have the ability to manipulate the glass or rearrange the stones of the castle himself.
“She’s here as an example for you,” he replied, trying to sound reasonable.
I nodded, not like I believed him, but like I thought he was more full of crap than any other person on earth. From experience, I knew I wasn’t going to like the next thing he said.
“You shouldn’t be afraid to go into Christian’s heart inside the Red Forest,” he said, his accent getting a little thicker. “I told you, you are allowed in that sacred place. You’re his wife.”
It was this little tidbit that had kept me out of Christian’s heart in the Red Forest. Whenever Brandon brought this up, I was filled with a little more rage.
“He didn’t marry me!” I would yell back. “He asked me to marry him and if you had left us alone for four more hours, I would have married him, but that didn’t happen!” If my screaming became deafening, Pricina would close the holes in the glass to keep the sound to a minimum.
Brandon continued trying to persuade me. “A marriage ceremony with only vows spoken would have meant comparatively little. I told you. I performed the marriage ceremony when I performed the surgery that gave you his heart.”
“There’s this neat thing called consent,” I bit back frostily. “You can’t marry a fourteen-year-old girl to an ancient, immortal man without consent.”
“Consent had been given,” Brandon replied calmly. “No matter which way you want to look at it. You were sleepy, but I asked you if you wanted to die or if you wanted to receive Christian’s heart, become his wife, and live forever. You replied that you understood and you never wanted to leave him.”
I hated it when Brandon mentioned this because I did remember waking up on the operating table. I just didn’t remember him talking to me. He did wake me up, but I had no idea I was agreeing to anything. If I had been completely awake, I knew I wouldn’t have believed him, but I would have agreed to anything. I had three days to live. In retrospect, it seemed unforgivable to tell a child if they didn’t agree to get married, they’d die.
Of course, when thinking of it that way, you don’t really get the idea that the groom could be a man like Christian. He was as reckless as he was attractive and a perfect gentleman.
No matter what Brandon said about true marriage being ‘bone to each other’s bone and flesh to each other’s flesh’, the mandatory trading of body parts among immortals to bond them together, and not a simple promise to love one another for the rest of your lives, I didn’t believe for a second that that was how Christian felt about it when he gave me his heart.
“You can’t have a true union between two immortal beings without the exchange of body parts. Among us, it has different consequences than if your lover gave you their kidney and you gave them yours. With humans, nothing special would be transferred but an organ meant to filter blood and discard waste. Yes, Christian gave you his heart, but so much more. He gave you himself. All those things he can’t remember… all the blanks he can’t fill… you will be able to fill them. It was a gift he gave to you on top of everything else he gave you: life, immortality, healing, beauty, agelessness. Through his heart, you can unlock the secrets of universal creation.”
I hated Brandon’s guts. The more he talked, the more he made it sound like he had performed the surgery in order to gain Christian’s knowledge for himself. He couldn’t take a part of Christian’s body and he knew I’d be an easier lock to pick than Christian. If anything, it sounded like Brandon had convinced his friend to take his treasure out of his vault and put it in a cardboard box.
I was the cardboard box in that simile.
I clenched my teeth.
I wouldn’t let him get anything.
I fought Brandon in every way I could, contradicting him, mocking him, and arguing with him every step of the way. He couldn’t make me do it, but he had a lot of energy for debate and all the time in the world.
“I couldn’t give consent. I was fourteen,” I’d argue.