by Diane Wood
Alexandra Messner is the first since Officer Nathalie Duncan’s teens to breach the iron fortress of her heart. After years of redeeming her brutal and sordid past as the fortune teller’s daughter, Nathalie can finally see the promise of a happy future. Until an innocently placed photograph of a dead woman shatters her world.
Alex knows that Nathalie carries painful scars, but she believes there is no wound of the heart that love cannot heal—until Nathalie confesses to the unthinkable. Devastated and heartbroken, Alex’s cold, bitter anger leaves no room for forgiveness.
With her mother’s criminal secrets suddenly at risk of exposure, Nathalie’s last desperate gift means confronting her childhood terrors to protect Alex from her family’s vicious intent. But can any sacrifice be enough to save Alex or ultimately redeem the fortune teller’s daughter?
Praise for Diane Wood
Wood has given us a heart-thumping thriller! - Lambda Literary
Diane Wood: Alice B. Reader's Lavender Certificate for Debut Author
Already nervous, Christine swallowed hard as she watched Nathalie Duncan push open the wrought-iron gate and step back into the shadows—at the same time motioning for her to lead the way. She hesitated, trepidation causing her heart to skip a beat and her large green eyes to widen in alarm. Her every instinct screamed for her to leave. Yet her youthful innocence made her want to please.
“It’s okay, Chris,” Nat murmured, looking into the vine-and tree-covered walkway. “It’s dark, but it’s okay.”
“I don’t know, Nat,” she whispered. “This is a bit weird. Why do we have to do this?”
“Because Mother wants to meet you,” the dark girl responded automatically. “She’s insisting on meeting you. Please, Christine…for me?” Desperation flowed from intense gray eyes.
Nodding reluctantly, Christine ducked to avoid overhanging branches as a hideous shriek rent the air. Screaming, she turned to flee, and crashed wildly into her girlfriend.
“Shit,” mumbled Nat, hurriedly grabbing Christine’s hand. “It’s only a cat.”
“Jesus,” Chris hissed, angrily, a shiver passing down her spine. “Can’t we just do it another time?”
Without replying, Nat used her free hand to hammer with the old-fashioned knocker.
“I thought you lived here. Don’t you have a key?”
“I do,” she replied with a shrug, reaching into the pocket of her jacket. “But Mother likes me to knock first.” Pulling out a set of keys, she undid first one lock and then a second. Pushing the door with her elbow and stepping into the hallway, she indicated for Christine to join her.
Peering into the dimness, Chris felt overwhelmed. Having a lover, and a female one at that, was peculiar enough at her age without this strange ritual that Nat was insisting on.
To their right a large wooden staircase disappeared upward, and to the left the gloom of the corridor stretched endlessly before them. Moving down the hall, they made their way in single file toward another heavy wooden door. The light filtering underneath it appeared to be the only light in the house, and it occurred to Christine that it was strange that Nat hadn’t turned on a hall light. Then she felt the warmth of Nat’s hand touch her back, guiding her firmly forward.
Nathalie knocked lightly before pushing open the door. It looked like a door that would creak on rusty hinges. Instead it opened smoothly and silently. The light in the room was dim, but compared to the darkness in the hallway it appeared comforting. The room was empty except for several poodles sitting motionless—watching—their black eyes tracking every movement—their silence unnerving.
“Mother must be in the sunroom,” Nathalie said, glancing around the room but making no comment about the dogs.
Suppressing a shudder, Christine looked around. The room had an open fireplace but no fire, and it felt even colder than outside. The furniture was old-fashioned but of good quality, and the wallpaper appeared colorless and mottled. She couldn’t tell whether that was because of the way the light reflected from the two heavily covered lampshades or whether it really was stained and old.
Wordlessly, Nathalie guided Christine toward a door at the far end of the room. Still the dogs didn’t move or make a sound—not that Christine would have heard them over the frantic pounding of her heart. Looking at Nathalie’s face, she was concerned to see the iciness reflected back at her. Nat was every bit as scared as she was. This realization only worried her more.
Again Nathalie knocked lightly before pushing the door open. This room seemed even more dimly lit than the one they were leaving, but as Christine stepped down the single step into the room, it at least felt to her somewhat warmer.
“Hello, Mother,” greeted Nat quietly into the large room. “I’ve brought Christine to meet you.”
Squinting into the dimness, Christine made out the figure of a woman sitting at what appeared to be a card table. Her body was bent over the table, and the single bar electric heater at her feet cast an eerie red glow over her lower body.
“Welcome, my dear,” replied the woman without looking up. “It’s so nice to have you to my home. Do come in.” The voice was low and smooth and the welcome almost sensual as the woman continued to look at the cards spread before her.
As Nathalie pushed her forward, Christine glanced around the room. It was quite a narrow room, but a long one and it opened out beyond where Nathalie’s mother sat. All the windows were heavily curtained and every piece of furniture had something on it—books, charts, Tarot cards, crystals, candles and still more books.
Originally the room would have been a parlor, where years ago the ladies of the house entertained their guests in privacy. Now it was being used as a living room and study. Someone needed to replace the lightbulbs in the mock chandelier that hung directly over the card table. Its four small bulbs made everything in the room look dull and dingy. Swallowing a feeling of dread, Christine took a step toward Nathalie’s mother.
Only now did the woman begin to rise from her table.
At first she thought that Nat’s mother was very old and thin, but clearly the light had played tricks, because as she stood to receive the introduction, the woman before her appeared young, slim and stunningly beautiful.
“So pleased to meet you,” the woman gushed, moving forward. “The cards are very auspicious for today’s meeting,” she said, indicating the spread of Tarot cards on the table beside her. Then, taking the surprised girl into her arms, she gave her a lingering—and very un-motherly—kiss.
The intimacy and passion of it took Christine aback, the overwhelming attractiveness and sensuality of this woman and the feel of her body against her own leaving her aroused and disgusted all at once. This was her lover’s mother. This was all wrong.
“Pleased to meet you,” she mumbled, trying to pull her eyes away from the intensity of the woman’s gaze. Could the woman read her mind, sense her arousal? Suddenly Chris knew that she could—and that she was enjoying it. Her emotions in overdrive, Chris managed a glance toward Nathalie, expecting to see embarrassment or a look of apology. All she saw was open resentment aimed squarely at her mother. This time when she focused back on Nat’s mother she saw triumph reflected in her eyes. Oddly she felt flattered by the attention.
“Can we move into the lounge?” Nat inquired quietly. “It would be more comfortable.”
“No, I think the parlor will be fine,” stated her mother, casting an impatient look at her. “I’d have to move my dogs if we used that room, and besides it’s too formal.”
Moving away from Christine, the woman began to walk toward the rear of the room, showing them both to an old-fashioned living area. The back part of the room was as packed with furniture and books as the study was, but here at least the seats were empty—as if awaiting the arrival of guests.
“Nathalie, do make us some coffee, won’t you?” her mother demanded, gesturing toward a rear door.
For a moment Nathalie didn’t move, her eyes flicking between Christine and her mother, her reluctance to leave obvious.
The hesitation hadn’t gone unnoticed.
Glancing toward her daughter, her mother insisted, “Now, Nathalie. Goodness, girl, we’ll all die of thirst waiting for you.” The voice was soft and gentle and at odds with the intensity of the demand.
Panic at being left alone with this strange woman flooded Chris, and she looked pleadingly at Nat, but her friend’s focus was on her mother. Christine’s heart sank as Nathalie turned and disappeared through the dark brown door.
“So, you’re Nathalie’s newest girlfriend?” the woman stated, sitting down in a rigid-backed chair and gesturing toward the ancient green sofa. “You’re fourteen too, I presume? I must say that you’re not like her usual friends.”
Still embarrassed from the kiss and unsure what to say, Christine made a production of settling herself into her seat. As she did so, she took the opportunity to look around the room. It was as ill-lit as the others, and although there was a small lamp on a covered coffee table not far from them, most of the light seemed to come from the strange-looking chandelier near the card table. Suddenly she felt small and very much out of her depth.
“Thank you for inviting me, Mrs. Duncan,” she said timidly. “Nathalie has spoken about you often.”
“Oh, I doubt that, my dear,” she challenged. Her eyes were flat and lifeless. “I truly don’t think Nathalie is very fond of me. But then that’s a mother’s lot isn’t it? Raising children, only to have them argue or rebel at the first opportunity.”
The words held a hint of annoyance, but then she smiled, and the tension dissolved—to be replaced by a feeling of warm acceptance. It was as if a potent drug had just been released into the atmosphere, heightening Christine’s awareness of her surroundings and of the attraction and fear she felt toward her lover’s mother. Overwhelmed by guilt and confusion, Christine dragged her eyes away and again began looking around the room.
Every wall was covered in prints or paintings of esoteric beings—goblins, witches, angels, leprechauns, anything representing that other world. Nathalie had told her that her mother was heavily involved in the occult and that she read the fortunes of the wealthy for a living, but nothing had prepared Christine for this house or the feelings Nat’s mother would evoke. “Your house is very interesting, Mrs. Duncan,” she lied, desperate to break the silence. “Nathalie told me you’re interested in the occult.”
“Oh, not just interested, my dear,” declared the woman with that flirtatious smile. “I live the occult and it lives through me.” Then, pausing to adjust her long flowing skirt, she said, “But please, call me Charlotte…and my surname is Silver. I was never married to Nathalie’s father. He only stayed around long enough to put his name on her birth certificate.”
Something about the way she spoke reminded Christine of her grandparents, yet the woman couldn’t have been more than about thirty-four, and she looked even younger. Her body was slim and supple, and although she gave the impression of being a “dark” woman, her coloring was actually very fair. Even as Christine tried to evaluate what it was about Charlotte that fascinated her so much, it occurred to her that her assessment hadn’t gone unnoticed. The woman’s smile had become blatantly sexual and her eyes deliciously inviting.
As Christine struggled to hide the blush spreading across her face, Nathalie entered the room with a tray in her hands. For a second she seemed to hesitate and Christine noted the flash of anger in her eyes and how the smooth dark skin crinkled around her mouth. She appeared tense and worried, but her eyes didn’t meet those of either Christine or her mother. Instead she busied herself playing hostess. Had she sensed the electricity between them?
Laying the tray on a table, Nathalie handed her mother a black coffee and offered a plate of chocolate biscuits. Taking one with an acknowledging nod, Charlotte watched as Nathalie handed Christine her cup, extended the biscuits and then took a seat beside her.
“I hope Mother hasn’t been asking too many awkward questions while I was gone,” Nathalie said without any hint of humor. “You know what mothers can be like.”
“Well, it isn’t every day that a mother gets to meet her daughter’s lover, is it now, Christine?” Then addressing Nathalie, “You are lovers, aren’t you, darling?” she asked pointedly.
“Yes, Mother, we are,” answered Nathalie quietly, glancing in Christine’s direction. “But really that’s our business.”
“Oh, of course it is, my darling, of course it is,” she murmured. “But you know how fascinated I am by anything perverse.”
Stunned, Christine looked toward Nathalie, expecting her to be embarrassed or angry.
Instead she found Nathalie smiling at her mother, as if proud that she was doing something that had made her mother sit up and take notice.
For just an instant, Christine could see a likeness between mother and daughter. It wasn’t a physical thing because Nat’s athletic darkness was in complete contrast to her mother’s delicate fairness. It was more in the strange challenging look that each wore and the coldness in their eyes. It sent a twinge of fear through her, as, with a start, she realized how little she truly knew about Nathalie Duncan.
* * *
They’d met at school a few months earlier, when Christine had moved to Sydney’s inner city with her mother and older sister. It wasn’t that they’d wanted to leave their large suburban home, but when her father had died, leaving them few resources, her mother had decided they needed a smaller, cheaper place that was closer to her work.
It had been traumatic for them all, but more so for a fourteen-year-old already suffering the disturbance of her emerging sexuality. For the longest time she made no effort to connect with anyone at her new school, but eventually her looks attracted a few. Still she was the outsider, groups and cliques having already formed in the earlier years of high school.
Then she’d met Nathalie. She had immediately been affected by the power of the strange dark girl with the very short hair. At times she seemed to blend perfectly into her surroundings, but at other times it was impossible not to notice her. In class she answered questions only when directly asked, but she always got them right, and when it came to tests or exams Nathalie never failed to earn top marks. Her classmates were in awe of her—but also envious, curious and discreetly disdainful.
The very strangeness of Nathalie attracted Christine and made her want to know more.
Theirs was a multiethnic school, yet Nathalie didn’t seem to fit within any of the obvious social or racial groups. Her hair was black and spiky, her eyes were the lightest gray and she had skin the color of coffee latte, but her race was a complete mystery. At first she’d appeared to Christine as confident and aloof, but gradually it occurred to her that this was simply the way Nathalie dealt with being different.
And Nathalie was definitely different. She never wore the latest fashions of pretty skirts and dresses, makeup and accessories. She looked like a boy and dressed like a boy. Jeans, shirts and name-brand running shoes were her daily school uniform, her books and stationery thrown casually into an old army backpack.
Expecting Nathalie to be the target of taunting from her peers, Christine was fascinated to watch how deferential everyone was toward her—including the teachers. Behind her back there were whispers but never raised voices. It was as if she intimidated them—not overtly, but purely by her presence.
Nathalie paid Christine no attention at all for the first months. It was during the third month that she first spoke directly to her.
Missing her father and feeling particularly miserable and distracted, Christine had paid little attention during the lesson and had managed to miss the instructions regarding that night’s assignment. Then as the final bell rang and everyone including the teacher exited the classroom, she’d found herself alone with Nathalie.
It was as if the girl knew she had a problem. “You seem so sad,” Nathalie stated in her warm, smooth voice as Christine began slowly packing up her books and papers.
“What do you mean?” she heard herself reply, strangely affected by the intimacy of Nathalie speaking directly to her.
“You’ve been distracted all day and now you look puzzled.”
Gathering her thoughts and stunned at her classmate’s insight, she shrugged. “I missed what homework we had to do for tomorrow. Daydreaming, I guess.”
“Do you do that often?” she asked casually. It had been said jokingly, but the look on Nathalie’s face had been comforting and understanding, and Christine had felt herself warm to this strange creature. Perhaps it was loneliness or perhaps it was the way the girl looked at her, but suddenly Christine knew that she wanted to know Nathalie Duncan better. Wanted her to be her friend—wanted to tell her everything.
“Sometimes I like daydreaming,” she stuttered slightly defensively. “I don’t like being at a new school…and I miss my dad.” Then without thinking, she added, “Not that my mother cares. She just thinks I need to pull myself together and settle down.”
“Well, that’s it then,” the girl replied quietly. “After all, mothers are always right!” The tinge of bitterness that edged the girl’s voice made Christine hesitate for a moment, but her expression hadn’t changed, and straightaway she went on to write down the homework the teacher had set. Handing the neatly written paper over to her, Nathalie said, “I’ve got my mother’s car if you want a lift home? You’ve probably missed your bus by now.”
“You can’t drive a car!” Christine laughed in surprise. “You’re not old enough.”
With a mocking shake of her head, Nathalie replied, “I don’t need a bit of paper to tell me that I can drive. Besides, Mother maintains that if you can get away with something, then why not? I drive well and I enjoy it.” Smiling slightly, Nathalie indicated for Christine to follow.
Without hesitation she did.
“So, do you trust me, Christine?” she asked over her shoulder as they exited the building. “To drive you home, that is,” she finished.
Amused, Christine followed without replying. It wasn’t really her nature to do anything remotely illicit, but she was sick of being obedient and law-abiding, and somehow this felt right.
Together they left the school grounds, heading for a small side street a short distance away.
“I can’t let the teachers see me driving this,” said Nathalie, indicating a late model Mercedes. “The secret of doing things you’re not supposed to be doing is to make sure you don’t flaunt it,” she pointed out, unlocking the passenger door and holding it open. “People can turn a blind eye to wrongdoing while they’re free to pretend it isn’t happening, but if you insist on making them acknowledge it, then they’ll feel they must act.”
Inside the car the force of Nathalie’s personality overpowered Christine, yet she felt comfortable, cared about and fascinated.
Without asking where she lived, Nathalie turned left and left again, heading along the main route to Christine’s house. Nathalie was right—she was a good driver. But why should that surprise her? It seemed that everything Nathalie Duncan did, she did well. It was only when she stopped the car outside their flat that Christine thought to ask how she knew where she lived.
“Oh, I know everything,” Nathalie acknowledged with a nod. “And what I don’t know I’ll find out.”
“What does that mean?” Christine demanded, not sure whether to be worried or not.
“You interested me, so I followed you home one day.” It was a statement with no hint of apology and no expectation that anyone would be upset.
Christine was speechless but also strangely flattered.
“I like you and I want us to be friends,” Nathalie continued, “but you need to know that most people think I’m a lesbian. Therefore, if you become friends with me there’s a good chance that you won’t be accepted into any of the other groups around the school.”
Her honesty took Christine’s breath away. How could this girl, the same age as she was, be so open about such things with a virtual stranger? Was it that she didn’t care, or was it some sort of defense mechanism?
“So, how do you feel about that?” Nathalie prompted, interrupting Christine’s jumbled thoughts and emotions. “Do you want to be with me? Do you want to be friends?”
“I…I don’t know,” stuttered Christine, confused. “I…I mean…well, I like you. At least I think I do, but…”
Blushing madly, she asked the question that had been on her mind since she’d first noticed Nathalie Duncan and heard the schoolyard whispers. “Are you a lesbian?”
“I don’t know…maybe,” she replied nonchalantly. “I prefer having sex with girls than boys and I don’t like girl’s clothes much, but I’ll do it with both.” Pausing briefly, she asked, “Does it matter?”
“I don’t know,” Christine answered honestly. “But, I don’t think I am…lesbian that is. I’ve never…well, I’ve never actually done it.”
“So you haven’t had sex. Is that what you’re saying?”
Looking down at her skinny knees, Christine didn’t answer.
Shrugging and indicating that it wasn’t a problem, Nathalie said, “So what? Everyone has to start somewhere, but the first time would be much nicer with another girl than a man—believe me.”
Looking up, it didn’t surprise Christine to see the invitation reflected in Nathalie’s serious gray eyes. It made her feel like a woman. This conversation wasn’t like any other she’d had about sex. Those had always been secret, giggling, lurid discussions about a particular boy or boys and their anatomy, and although she’d experienced the same curiosity as her friends, the conversations had never made her feel like a sexual being. This conversation was personal and was taking place with someone she hardly knew, yet she was aware of a need building inside her that would have to be satisfied later in her small bedroom—secretly and silently, under the bed cover.
“I have to go,” she muttered, trying to regain control of her burgeoning desire. “My sister will be home from university soon.”
“Then I’ll see you at school tomorrow?”
Christine was aware of Nathalie watching her as she gathered her books and began climbing out of the car. She didn’t know if she wanted to continue with this friendship. It was strange, it was exciting, but she was also just a little afraid. When she failed to respond to her question, Nathalie added, “If you don’t want to, that’s okay too. Don’t worry, I won’t embarrass you.”
Without waiting for a reply Nathalie leaned over and, pulling the door closed, headed back in the direction she’d just come.
That night, Christine slept very little. All night she was assailed by images of Nathalie—the intensity of her personality, the boyish attractiveness of the girl and the casualness with which she treated her sexuality. Did she want what Nathalie was offering? And if so, did that make her a lesbian? In the past, her erotic fantasies had always been about boys, yet at times many of these boys had appeared rather androgynous. It wasn’t the first time that Christine had been confused by her own ambivalence, but it was the first time she’d had to actually confront it.
* * *
Their first time took place in a small flat that Nathalie said was owned by her mother. They’d let the friendship build over those first couple of weeks, spending every spare moment together but never again discussing sex.
Nathalie was intense, humorous and very intelligent, and for Christine it was such a relief to find a friend on the same wavelength as herself. It was hard to ignore the covert glances they received when they ate lunch together, and she felt the eyes of her fellow students burning into her back as she left school each afternoon with Nathalie. Yet while these things bothered her, Christine never doubted her decision to let the friendship take its course.
By the second week Christine had found herself lying to her mother and sister in order to spend time with Nat. Not that it was truly lies. She was going to a friend’s place and they were studying together, but they both knew that it was much more than that. They both knew that inevitably they’d become lovers.
It started with a gentle kiss over coffee, and even now she couldn’t remember who’d instigated it. Christine had kissed several boys and felt their hard young bodies against her own, but nothing they’d done had made her body respond with such desire—such unbridled passion.
Slowly and skillfully Nathalie began to undress her, each movement and touch sending thrills of excitement to places Christine didn’t even know existed. Moving with her to the bedroom, Nathalie had laid her down and, stripping off her own clothes, had stretched out beside her on the huge bed. Only then did Christine begin to doubt.
Sensing her nervousness, Nathalie whispered, “It’s going to be okay, Chris. I promise. You can’t stay a virgin forever and this is the best way. Just trust me, I won’t hurt you and I know you want it as much as me.” Pressing herself against Christine, Nathalie kissed her lips, her neck, then down toward her tiny, young breasts. All the time her hands were wandering, playing a wonderful sensuous tune on every part of her body.
The feeling of flesh against flesh combined with those kisses made all doubt disappear, as Christine’s body’s demand for satisfaction increased.
Moving away slightly, Nathalie whispered, “I have something for you. Do you trust me?”
Barely able to control her need for completion, Christine nodded her agreement.
Reaching down and pulling out a drawer beneath the bed, Nathalie returned to their lovemaking. This time, though, instead of resuming her stroking and touching, she pressed something firmly between Christine’s legs—the pressure making her moan and move to receive its hardness.
At first there was a little gentle pain, but Nathalie was touching her and it was exciting and made her want to open herself more. As she did so the hardness began to fill her and her movements against it became measured and rhythmic—the feeling so much more exciting than she’d ever experienced at her own hand.
Nathalie’s movements mirrored her own, as did her breathing and the whimpers of enjoyment. Desperately they clung together in an erotic dance, allowing their need to dictate the pace. Finally, gasping and moaning at the intensity of her pleasure, Christine felt her passion reach its pinnacle—exquisitely releasing all of that glorious tension. Seconds later, Nathalie followed the same route, clinging to her and groaning her satisfaction.
It had been too exciting, too satisfying to turn away from. Doubts crept in at times, but her physical needs took over and Christine found herself almost permanently aroused when she was around Nat. It was like a drug—the more they had sex, the more Christine wanted it and the more exciting Nathalie made it.
Of course her mother and sister asked questions. They wanted to meet Christine’s new friend—the one she studied with every afternoon after school. But they were busy with their own lives and didn’t seem to notice that she never quite got round to bringing Nathalie home.
It wasn’t the same for Nat. Early in their affair, Nathalie told her about her mother—that she lived in an expensive part of town and was independently wealthy, that Nat had never known her father and that her mother had always been happy to let Nat do whatever she wanted—sex, drugs, underage driving. All she demanded was that Nat bring her lovers home to meet her. When Nathalie spoke, Christine thought she detected a sliver of fear in the girl’s voice. She dismissed it as her imagination.
* * *
“I think your young friend needs more than coffee,” Charlotte whispered to Nathalie, as Christine sat with a stunned look on her face. “Please don’t be offended, Christine. What’s happening between you and my daughter is perfectly natural and rather lovely. I don’t mean to embarrass you. But to the rest of society with its antiquated moral code, you would be seen as ‘perverse’ and perversity fascinates me.”
Unable to formulate any kind of sensible response, Christine simply stared. This woman was so unlike anyone she’d ever met before—beautiful and delicate, but with a ferocious and blatant sexuality that took your breath away. It was hard to take offense at her words. In fact the more she spoke, the more Christine realized that this openness held a hidden promise, something that at once attracted and repulsed her.
“Let’s have something stronger to drink,” mumbled Nathalie, abruptly rising from her seat and heading toward the kitchen. Moments later she returned with a bottle of bourbon, glasses and an opened, half-full bottle of Coke.
Pouring the drinks, Nathalie said, “This will help us relax and enjoy the evening.”
They discussed school and Christine’s family and the fact that they didn’t know about her “friendship.” They spoke of boys and men, Nathalie admitting that her first sexual experience had been with one of her mother’s male lovers. By then the alcohol and whatever they’d put into her drink had Christine in a blissful and erotic haze and nothing being said shocked her.
Eventually they ate, but while the food tasted lovely, Christine could not have guessed what it was she was eating. Her concentration was firmly on the feeling of being courted, flattered and given all the attention any normal fourteen-year-old could desire. The warmth of acceptance by this mother and daughter combination made her feel special. She wanted that feeling to last forever.
* * *