Latest Iteration of “Tangled Web”

Well, I finally had to guts to post and ask for someone to read and edit my current w.i.p.  It was a monumental step for me as I am my own worst critic & feel my creative endeavors are unworthy of publication in any form. The person I entrusted the first 3 chapters to is a talented, published writer of erotic romance and an editor for a publishing company. Turns out my written musings are really good and with some editing/rewrite here and here, might even stand a chance of one day being published.

On that note, I present the first few pages of the latest version of “Tangled Web” and hope you enjoy it as much as I did writing it.

   Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!”- Sir Walter Scott, Marmion, Canto vi. Stanza 17.

Chapter 1

Western Maryland, 2000

Brrrr! Damn the temperature took a plummet and seemingly overnight. Snug long johns or sweats weather for sleeping weather for certain.

Gooseflesh erupted all over Gaby’s skin as her teeth chattered hard, the idea of freezing to death before the heater in her car puffed out sufficient heat popped to mind. Saying no to an invite to spend the holidays down south had been the dumbest thing yet. Seven glorious days in warm sun was preferable to parading around in so many layers, one looked like the Michelin Man. Driving to work at the Environmental Lab in the middle of what was surely the season’s first blizzard wasn’t bright, but not closing the place was even dumber.

Unlike her cat form, who loved to romp in the cold and accompanying deep snow, her two-legged human form hated the freezing temps and its white, wet stuff.

Oh, yeah, not accepting the invite had been a flash of brilliance.

Her grip on the steering wheel was white- knuckled as forty-five mile per hour winds buffeted the small SUV. Swirling, blowing snow covered the paved road, pretty much obliterating the lane markings and making it harder to keep in lane on the road.

“Oh, yeah, this is loads more fun. Sunbathing on a sandy beach in Florida with friends can’t possibly compare even in the slightest,” she muttered sarcastically

This was gearing up to be quite a snowstorm, possibly a blizzard of monstrous proportions, and already six inches or more of the wet white stuff lay on the flat land. A booming clap of thunder broke the eerie silence on the lonely stretch of road.

“Great, thunder snow, just what I need,” she grumbled, downshifting the silver SUV, christened “Noelle” by her cousin Edie, into four-wheel drive.

The shiny used vehicle was her pride and joy, a replacement for the old one as a gift for her sixteenth birthday and getting her driver’s license. Sometime toward the middle of her junior year in college, it started having so many mechanical problems, it proved wiser to replace than repair. After a lot of soul searching and number crunching, she reluctantly gave into the fact it was time to trade in the old one on a new one.

When the parking lot came into view, she let out a sigh of relief and pulled an empty parking space. Okay, good news = she had made it safe and sound to the lab, though her nerves felt shot. Bad news = hers was the only vehicle in the parking lot.

“Isn’t this just wonderful,” she muttered, unlocking the door and pushing it open.

Normally by this hour of morning, enough cars and trucks of assorted sizes and styles filled half of the lot. Where was everyone?

Getting out into the falling snow, she locked the car and trudged through piles of unplowed snow to a similarly-covered sidewalk. She wasted no time plodding to the front door, only to find it locked. What the hell was going on? By this hour of morning, the building was unlocked and a few others were here. If there’d been a call saying they’d be closed on account of weather, no such call came on her phone.

“I drove through howling wind and blinding snow only to find the place locked up tighter than a clam with lockjaw. Damn!” she swore low. Frustrated at the situation, she stomped a booted foot on the snow covered sidewalk, sending a flurry of white flakes flying into the air from the force.

The flakes get larger and falling faster, she turned and headed back to her car, the one looking more like an oversized snowball than the shiny ornament so lovingly christened by her cousin Edie. Her sturdy fur-lined snow boots made deep depressions in the mound of snow obliterating any demarcation between concrete and pavement. It all looked like one huge ocean of brilliant white.

Her right boot slipped on the hidden icy edge of the curb, causing her legs to fly out from under her, sending her body crashing backward. Landing hard, her head made solid contact with the snow-covered sidewalk. Even her thick fleece-lined hat failed to cushion the blow.

Bright light flashed behind her eyes as shafts of pain shot through her skull. A low groan escaped her lips as her eyelids fluttered. She groaned again. Then everything went quiet and black.

****

Another grumble came out Braxton Braxton’s mouth. Was this the second or third one this year he’d been at the top of the list? He couldn’t remember, but whoever made up the list seemed to have it in for him.

Something else to bring up at a departmental meeting, he muttered under breath while focusing on the hard to see road. Bad snow storms always made it hard to drive these mountain roads when they weren’t plowed, but this storm’s fury made it ten times worse.

Plans for the weekend having been suddenly canceled thanks to waking up to swirling snow and howling wind, he’d changed mental direction and prepared to dive into the never ending pile of undergrad papers and possibly a few of the boring grad student thesis proposals. Then came the call to check on the lab, for the silent alarm has been tripped and his name was at the top of the list.

“Yet again,” he grumbled for the umpteenth time since bundling up and trumping out to the truck. “I must be the only one with wheels capable of maneuvering in this kind of weather.”

Even if it wasn’t true, it made going outside a little more palatable.

After one long, hellacious drive to the lab, he tramped through ever deepening snow and his heart almost stopped at seeing Gaby Pope passed out on the concrete sidewalk. Wasting precious little time, he loaded her freezing body into the passenger side of the truck’s front seat, climbed back into the driver’s side, and restarted the vehicle, heading it slowing back out to the road.

“Dammit, why are you out in this bad storm? You could have been killed.”

Bad enough anxiety and panic were tearing through his insides, he now sported a growing hard-on pushing against the fly of his jeans, which were snugger than normal thanks to wearing a pair of hot silks between the denim and his skin.

It was getting harder and harder to ignore how she affected him. Add in the memory of one extraordinary night of sex after the lab’s annual holiday party, and he was in so much trouble. Prim and proper Gabriele Pope became a sexy hell-cat when her inhibitions were impaired.

Right now he was more concerned with her pale color and cold shivers. Given the worsening conditions, his initial inclination to head straight to the local ER seemed unwise. More than likely the small facility would be closed, all personnel instructed to head to the nearest large hospital to help out. Once they made it to the cabin, he could call Doc to come over and have a look at her.

Downshifting into low, the truck slowly inched onto the nearby highway toward the exit which would take then to a road leading into the mountains. Thank goodness he hadn’t locked up the cabin for the season, though it wasn’t equipped and stocked for company.

“M-y c-car,” a soft voice called from the passenger side.

Daring to take his eyes off the road, he saw her bluish lips tremble, and then thick black eyelashes flutter as if to open then slip shut again.

He shook his head while refocusing on the treacherous road conditions. Whatever possessed her to travel in this weather?

“M-y c-car,” she said again, in a soft, plaintive cry that made his chest ache.

“It’s perfectly safe, pussycat,” he said in a reassuring tone. “It’s perfectly safe until the lot gets plowed out and by then they’ll know it’s there and to plow around it.”

“M-y c-car,” she mumbled again.

Apparently, she hadn’t heard a word he’d just said, which worried him more. He gritted his teeth and focused hard on the disappearing lane markings while trying to will his errant cock to behave. Her being bundled up in heaven knows how many layers of clothes clearly meant nothing to his appendage. She was near.

“Dammit, if the silent alarm hadn’t gone off, you could have been passed out in the sidewalk for hours and no one would have seen you. You could have died and no one would have been the wiser until the lab reopened when the weather cleared.”

Mere thought of that occurring made his insides shake with fear. Damn female would be the death of him. Good thing he came to check after the call. Anyone else might have ignored the stupid thing, thinking it had malfunctioned in the freakish weather.

“Do you have a death wish, one other than meant to kill me?” Every time he dared to glance over, her body visibly shook despite being bundled up in a down jacket, ski hat, pile-lined boots and with the trunk’s heater going full blast. “What have I ever done to you? Well, except that,” he groaned, a vivid memory flooding his head. Of her after the holiday party in his bed doing the most outlandish, incredibly sexy stuff, and his cock got even harder, if that was possible given the constriction of his clothing.

A hint of midnight black curls peeked out from under the ski hat, and his fingers itched to touch them, feel those lustrous strands wind over his skin. His cock twitched again, now fully erect and fervently pushing on the metal zipper of his jeans. The curvy, sexy she-cat was a drug he couldn’t seem to do withstand or do without when she was so near.

“Give a fella a break, will ya, pussycat?” Using his teeth to pull off a ski glove, he gently stroked the side of her face, easing aside the errant curls. Even with the heater turned on high, her creamy smooth skin felt frigid to the touch. Once they reached the cabin, he’d get her warm even if it meant using his own body heat to do it.

The sacrifices one must make, though the idea wasn’t all that displeasing.

She might need medical attention, his inner cat hissed, furious at the man for not heading to the hospital first. Bad weather, a female shifter lacking a modicum of common sense, and now his cat decides to add its two cents to the mix. Being a shifter was not all it’s cracked up to be at times, though not letting the outside world know they still roamed the region was the imperative. Although the world just celebrated the turning of another century, twenty-first to be exact, most humans did not believe what they could not personally see and some reacted downright nasty to their presence. Over the years he’d taken great pains to hide his duality, personally and professionally, rather than risk losing it all and possibly his life should his secret be exposed.

I’ll call Andrew once we’re back at the cabin, he hissed in return.

After what seemed more like an hour, though actually minutes, they reached the secluded mountain cabin. Inside he laid her gently on the plush sofa in the middle of the Great Room and pushed a hand through his hair. How, in the hell, did things get so complicated so quickly? One moment peacefully teaching students about stuff he loves, left wondering what to do with the long-sought after knowledge of who murdered his family, and then out-of-the-blue into one of his classes waltzes in his mate and life gets turned upside down, inside out.

Years of scoffing at the improvable and improbable notion of a nonentity choosing one’s life partner, and he’s thrown for a loop when the feeling smacks into him with such force he’s nearly rocked off his feet. What were the odds? Slim to none would have been his reaction, but there she was in the flesh and his body was reacting in ways imaginable.

If that wasn’t enough to thrown him off-kilter, she turned out to be the niece of the scumbag who participated in the massacre. Sound improbable? Heck he doubted even one of the best fiction writers of all times could come up with a plot line like this one. True is stranger than fiction and this was the stranger than most.

And now she was ensconced on his sofa, unconscious, and he had no clue how to handle things. His body wanted her more than anything, but he’d never taken an unawake female and wasn’t about to start now.

“No one’s life is this complicated, I’m sure of it. Who have I pissed off to be made to suffer this way?”

Pulling back on the parka ad gloves, he left the cabin to recheck the truck before picking up more logs for the fire. With the way snow was falling, they might be stuck here for a few days before a county plow reached this remote area.

Not a very endearing thought and chills ran up and down his spine. Trying to understand Gaby Pope was almost an art form. On the one hand, the young woman in class was highly intelligent, diligent in her studies, and funny in a quirky sort of way. The side of her who dared reckless travel in the middle of a blizzard, he didn’t know at all.

Reentering the cabin, he groaned low at the eerie quiet and stomped snow off his work boots before using a foot to shove the door closed. He carried the armful of logs over to the log bin near the large stone fireplace. A quick glance at the quiet figure curled up on the soft-pillowed sofa, he set about lighting a fire and then stacked the remaining logs in the nearby bin.

Flames slowly licking the logs, lighting up the firebox as smoke curls gently rose up the brick chimney, he breathed a sigh of relief for having lost the heating warm with his contractor. The stone and brick fireplace with heatilator was far superior to the cast iron stove he’d loudly lobbied for.

The large room was filled with rustic wood furniture, thickly padded seating, wood hewn accent pieces, wool and cashmere blended throws, and a large round-drum hanging fixture which lit the room a soft golden glow. The ten foot vaulted ceiling was supported by shellacked, double-stacked thick logs around its perimeter and more angled across to help support its expansive cathedral-style.

Originally conceived as a man-cave, only on a larger scale, he was stunned at how right she felt being in here. Getting over the near horror of finding her passed out in the snow was another matter entirely. He didn’t think he’d get over it any time soon.

Hanging his wet parka on a hook near the front door, he whipped off the wide-brimmed cowboy style hat, sending mounds of wet snow flying everywhere. Most landed on the sealed hardwood floor and quickly formed small puddles. Scowling at the sight, he dropped the hat and key ring on a side table and tossed a glance at the sofa.

“Damn female,” he muttered, shaking his head. How quick they ingratiated themselves into one’s life and without even lifting a finger.

Shrugging his shoulders he strode toward the kitchen, determined to regain control of his slipping emotions while figuring out what to do with her. Perhaps a steaming hot coffee to warm his insides, slow down his libido and ease his inner cat, who was pacing and wanting out.

As the coffeepot heated on the stove, he stood in the doorway, arms crossed over his chest, listening to the loud hisses, crackles, pops, of the fire. By the sound of it, bright yellow and blue flames now leaped and glowed brilliantly in the firebox, thin plumes of greyish smoke curling one upon another and up the wide stone chimney.

He wasn’t about to lie. He’d often wondered what it would be like to find a mate, had gone so far as to consider marriage and kids. But not right now. There was plenty of time later. For now he wanted to concentrate on his teaching, lab projects, and what best to do with the collected knowledge of who’d killed his family and the others and why.

True, he’d only been six years old when it all happened, but in his mind’s eye it was as if only yesterday. Watching those you love either gruesomely killed or left maimed and bleeding to die is nothing short of horrific, and for what?

It took years of bouncing around the foster care system and then lots of personal research to garner enough known facts to piece it together to make some sort of sense. Arizona desert land, dry and arid and incapable of supporting life other than cactus, was purchased by his father and several others, legally deeded and registered to the small group. Unbeknownst to others residing in the area, the new group, which called itself the Amerikanskie Patna Pack, or Patna for short, were all snow leopard shifter emigres from the Russian Baltic States region.

Braxton Taggett was the first kitten born in the small tight-knit group, all his early learning from his parents and other group elders, and where he developed a healthy respect for the land and conserving its resources. The compound was run like a modern day commune, all sharing jobs and responsibilities All the sweat, toil, and back-breaking work paid off within a few short year as sustainable crops began to be produced. Some were used for personal needs. A portion sold to bring in money to purchase whatever the pack couldn’t make or grow.

During this time young Braxton also learned how mean and ruthless others could be toward those they didn’t know or feared. How passive resistance did not always defend oneself and others. How a mere piece of paper, though signed by a government official, did not guarantee others wouldn’t kill to take it all away.

The massacre of his family and the others haunted him to this day. It wasn’t bad enough one of the men who committed the heinous act lived nearby in the mountains and was the Alpha of his pack of puma shifters, but Fate chose the man’s niece as Braxton’s mate.

“One twisted sense of humor with a new complication. How in the hell do I handle this one?” he grumbled, dismayed and confused.

After filling a large mug with coffee, he added several spoons of sugar and a dollop of cream and then headed back to the Great Room. The fire was blazing nicely and started to warm up the room. For the first time since waking, he had something to smile about and sauntered over to the soft, pillowed sofa. He took a long, slow sip of the hot brew, gazing at the lump resting quietly under the comforter. A simple bump on the head shouldn’t knock someone out for this long, but the shivers wracking her body were unmistakable.

The smile slowly turned into a disgruntled frown as he set the mug on an end table and left the room, returning in a few with a clean flannel work shirt and plump down comforter. After dropping both items on the large wood coffee table, he perched on its edge and proceeded to unzip her down jacket. Whether by accident or on purpose, his fingers lightly grazed the side of a naturally plump breast, causing a blast of heat to rocket through his insides. Oh yeah, this was not going to be as easy as first envisioned.

Gritting his teeth against the wave of emotion and lust searing his insides, he made quick work of undressing her down to her underwear before redressing her in the flannel shirt. Sweat beaded up in places unimaginable as a demanding erection grew behind the zipper of his jeans.

Sweat beaded all over his brow, his once steady breathing now panting in and out. Every inadvertent touch of those luscious full curves had him wanting her more. Damn, if the mating lust was this bad now, what would it be like in a few days or, god forbid, a week stuck here?

Oh, no, no, can’t happen. Must find a way not to give in no matter how it hurts. After all a gentleman does not take a lady, conscious or unconscious, not even one Fate chose as his mate or what a certain part of his anatomy wants. Despite, or possibly in spite, of a rougher than normal past, he is still a gentleman in all things. Ladies who’ve graced his bed did so of their own free will. Nothing less will do.

“Oh yeah, this is not going to be easy. Do you have any idea what could have happened out there?” he asked pointedly of the silent bundle, knowing full well there’d be no response. But his pent-up frustration demanded some sort of release. “Have you no concern for yourself? Have you no concern for me? I nearly died a thousand deaths seeing you lying on the sidewalk covered in snow.” His voice caught in his throat as the unwanted picture popped to mind, and he cringed while faintly shaking his head. She’d been one of the brightest students to ever take his class, yet at times she clearly lacked a bit of common sense.

Another shiver shook her curvy body, and he swallowed hard. Damn, even passed out she was mighty tempting, his rock hard erection throbbing, insistently, against the fly of his jeans.

However, this in no way compared to the evening of holiday party. Both of them were quite drunk, but not enough to know what they were doing, at least he’d like to believe that was true.

Damn, but that night was pure heaven. She went from prim and proper to sexy, hot and wanton in the blink of an eye. He couldn’t have wished for more, and the idea it was all his for life seemed too good to be true.

Mate, his inner cat mewed, and he nodded. Yeah. Who would have thought it? Not him, that’s for sure. He’d determined not to get tied down. Hell, bachelorhood was exciting, thrilling, and the love them, leave them aspect was perfect. Then this pretty, smart little package walked into his life and everything changed, except for settling one thing from the past.

How to do that yet not upset or hurt her was the conundrum. She was the scumbag’s niece, so anything serious was out of the question. This would take more time and thought to figure out. For now, her health was front and center.

As he continued to gaze at her, another hot blast shuddered through his insides. Swearing low, he got onto his feet and reclaimed the cooling coffee mug. He needed space away from her to think and let his bogy cool down a bit.

Hell, if he survived this intact, he’d deserve a damn medal for untold bravery and monumental self-control. He was no damn monk, took no vow of chastity. He liked women and they seemed to like him. This was his castle. Her presence was wreaking havoc on him, his libido, and pushing the limits of self-control.

“Cold shower here I come,” he groaned as he tossed a glance over a shoulder, before striding towards the front door and hall which led to the other rooms.

If all else failed a long walk in the freezing cold was a definite option. A stiff drink or two or more might aid the cause, though getting drunk would not be welcome. Unless, of course, he wanted a reoccurrence of the last time of imbibing too much liquor around her. While he definitely wanted her back in his bed, he’d much prefer her to be stone cold sober and in total possession of all faculties. Heaven knows what she might do then versus what she did tipsy.

The idea was intriguing to say the least, even his cat nodding while whining our mate over and over.

I know…I know…stop harping on it already, he growled back, frustrated beyond measure.

One last look at the unmoving bundle and he retrieved his cellphone from an inside pocket of his parka, then punched a number on the speed dial list. With undue haste, he strode down the short hall and into the kitchen.

The phone rang continually in his ear. No answer on the other end added to his high frustration. Maybe another cup of coffee would ease things. At least this time he’d drink the whole darn thing.

As he entered the kitchen, his hand absentmindedly flipped the wall switch, causing a row of hanging dewdrop shaped lights to illuminate the large room. Although not a great cook, he’d made sure this room was enlarged during the remodel. If nothing else, he and his summertime guests could hang-out together in one place rather than scattered throughout several smaller rooms.

“Come on, Doc, pick up the damn phone. You can’t be swamped with patients. Everybody’s stuck inside in this freaking weather.” A frown etching his brow, he pressed the speaker button then set the cell phone on the island’s countertop. His fingers drummed a steady beat on the solid granite, his frustration increasing the longer the phone rang on the other end.

Long, agonizing seconds passed until a familiar voice blared through the speaker.

“What’s up, my friend?”

“Nice of you to finally pick up,” Braxton bristled, his voice rough from the storm of hormones racing willy-nilly through his body.

“Yeah, well, I almost didn’t as I’m putting together an emergency pack. When I saw it was your number, I figured something must be up,” Andrew Prentiss replied, his normally calm demeanor ruffled by the sudden change in weather. Too many did stupid things during storms like this one. As the only doctor in the rural area, there were bound to be lots of sprains and broken bones to attend. In the worst case scenario, he’d have to administer CPR while awaiting an ambulance. With any luck no one would die from overexertion, but he wasn’t counting on anything. Heavy snow storms brought out the worst in people who under normal circumstances used common sense.

The unmistakable irritation in his friend’s voice was cause for concern. Nothing ever fazed Braxton. Well, almost nothing. Clearly something was bothering him or he wouldn’t have called and sounded so urgent. Not a betting man, this time he could easily be convinced to put a hefty wager on it being something other than the weather. In fact, this was the kind of stuff revved up the man’s internal engine. Being a snow leopard shifter, both he and his cat loved the cold and snow and everything that went with it.

“So, is this a social call or what?” He was more than a little anxious to learn the reason.

“Trying to add standup to your repertoire? Don’t give up your day job, Andrew.”

“Aw, you don’t like my brand of humor? That hurts,” he mocked, a decided chuckle in his tone.

“Sorry, you’re no comedian and that type of humor died out years ago.”

Andrew huffed. “The Borscht Belt was famous and lots of famous comedians honed their acts in those old resorts.”

“Old being the operative word,” Braxton returned.

Andrew made face at the implication, thankful his friend couldn’t see the expression. “I’ll have you know I am not that much older than you, so if you’re classifying me as ‘old’, you can lump yourself in there with me. I thought you were off to a ski resort to shush down the slopes. Don’t skiers pray for this kind of weather?”

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