The plush terry cloth robe slipped from Ireland’s shoulders with a whispering caress before pooling in a heap around her ankles. Marble tiles chilled her bare feet as she stepped into the walk-in shower. The tips of her fingers slid across stainless steel. With a flick of her wrist, the trio of showerheads flowed to life. Welcoming heat came at her from all angles, pulsating over her curves with a rhythmic seduction. Ireland turned, a groan escaping her as the streams massaged all the right places. Steam rose, fogging the handle and creating a cloud of humidity that hugged her frame. Tipping her head back, she let the droplets rain down on her face and across her closed lids. Her lips parted, welcoming the rush of warmth that flooded between them. Until it assaulted her tongue with a rush of coppery warmth that clamped her throat shut with a wretched heave. Her hands cupped to catch the droplets, her eyes widening as thick crimson pooled in her palms, seeping between her ivory fingers. Formerly white tiles were now smattered and smeared with blackish-red gore that sprayed from the nozzles. Ireland threw herself from the shower, her feet slipping beneath her. She reached out to steady herself, but found nothing to hold on to. Nothing there to pull her back from the brink, except her own need for self-preservation … and a shadowed silhouette in the corner. Instinctively, she covered herself with her arms. Squinting, she craned her neck to see the figure that was slowly turning to face her.
“Mason?” Her voice echoed around her before she could even speak it.
He stared straight ahead with fixed, unseeing eyes. Blood trailed down his face from various points of origin, soaking the front of his shirt. “Cloak of night, brings Horseman’s plight. His pricy toll, will be a soul.”
“Mason? Are you okay?”
A hard blink and his eyes found focus on her. A desperate panic flared his nostrils, forcing his breath to come fast and ragged. “Help me, you have to help me,” he pleaded, his teeth pink with the blood that streamed past his lips.
Her trembling hand reached for him, then recoiled at her own inept state of confusion. “H-how? What do I do?”
“You have to save us,” Mason’s words became more garbled by the fresh rush of gore that bubbled up the back of his throat. His once handsome face contorted in rage. Leaning forward he balled his fists and screamed with a force that bulged the tendons of his neck, “Save us!”
“Tonight was meant to be the Harvest Ball,” Katrina said as she slid between the folds of her crimson and taupe gown. “Now the town is meeting, trying to concoct a plan to stop a being that death itself couldn’t tame.”
Ichabod sat on the edge of the bed with his back, respectfully, to Katrina while she changed. His loaded musket lay across his lap. In the reflection of the window in front of him he could see the soft curve of her hips as they tapered into her narrow waist. He cleared his throat and shifted his gaze to the floor. His chin tipped to the side, ever so slightly, to ask, “Are you secure in our plan?”
“I am to attend the summit on the arm of Van Brunt,” she reaffirmed as she pulled her long, blonde locks out from the back of her gown and began tightening the laces of her bodice. “Then speak with as many people as I can, searching for anyone that may have motives leading to the Horseman.”
Ichabod nodded. Mostly to himself, he muttered the remaining details they were depending upon, “Rip will be inside as well. That man can finesse a crowd with a skill that truly baffles. If there are secrets to be found, he will uncover them. Irv will be outside with me, primarily because the Horseman isn’t the only one in this town that would like to see his head on a spike. We will be on horseback, patrolling the grounds with a few other men that have volunteered. You will have nothing to fear.”
Her elegant gown in place, Katrina turned to Ichabod wearing an expression equal parts timidity and fear. “What of ?”
The bed squeaked as Ichabod shifted his weight to face her. “Boorish as his ways may be, he cares for you. If you adopt the guise that you have interest in him, he will do all he can to protect you inside the gathering, while I provide you the same service outside.”
“And,” her long lashes brushed the tops of her cheeks as she cast her gaze to the floor, “you aren’t bothered by me being on his arm?”
In the midst of the plotting and planning, Ichabod had slipped into the role he knew well of military strategist. He had detached himself from the emotional aspects—until that very moment. The reality of his request sank in like a heavy stone. He had asked her to take another man’s arm, asserting her place beside him. The implications of that dug into his gut like a dull blade, churning and twisting deep.
“The mere idea of that makes me ache,” he stated, forcing the words through his suddenly parched throat. “Yet I would endure this hardship, and countless others, to keep you safe.”
She moistened her lips with a flick of her tongue, seemingly wrestling with words that gave her pause. “Ichabod, when this is over … w-would you call yourself mine?”
Ichabod closed his eyes. The euphoria of that question washed over him, cleansing him of all his sins with the promise of tomorrow. Rising to his feet, he took her velvet soft hand in his. A love he hadn’t known possible illuminated her striking face. “From the moment I saw you, my heart belonged to you alone. If by some miracle you were to give me your love in return, I would need nothing else to sustain me the rest of my days.”
Katrina’s palm tenderly brushed his cheek. “You have already claimed that.”
Allowing no further hesitation, Ichabod gathered her in his arms. Katrina tipped her head back, the soft curves of her body molding to his. Full lips parted in an alluring invitation it would take a stronger man than him to resist.
If his wife hadn’t let her ass grow to the size of a sofa, Vic wouldn’t have to cheat. Shrugging his navy blue sport coat over his shoulders, he stepped forward, allowing the hotel room door to shut behind him with a soft thump. A smug smile curled across his face, his chest puffing with pride at his own prowess—thanks in part to those spiffy little blue pills his doctor prescribed. The heels of his wing-tipped loafers clicked against the cement stairs, one impeccably manicured hand running along the handrail as he descended. The rusted metal rail squeaked its protest under the faint touch. Taking its suggestion, he retracted his hand.
Why he humored Karma by letting her drag him to this dive every week, he had no idea.
Her firm little apple bottom isn’t that great, he mused to himself, snorting a quick, dry laugh.
Of course it was. She made good money with it at the Sugar Shack down by the airport. Grinding to R&B’s raunchiest hits, while clad only in a sequin thong. She was a sweet, albeit naïve, girl that believed if she stroked Vic’s … ahem, ego just the way he liked, she would someday find a fat rock on her finger and the title of Van Tassel behind her name. Hence her insistence on the flea bag hotel. She had flipped her bleached blonde waves, batted those ridiculous fake eyelashes, and pouted that she couldn’t be seen as the “other woman” by the same crowd she would soon be rubbing elbows with. As if he would ever let that happen. Karma’s airbrushed nails and hooker heels would never fit into his world. After all, in Tarrytown the Van Tassel name meant something, and not because of the stupid legend the residents of the small glen of Sleepy Hollow mercilessly clung to. No, as one of the founding families they helped build this town. Meaning, here, he might as well be a Rockefeller. A fact he reveled in and would never tarnish with outward displays of his cheap conquests … no matter how well she could wiggle.
Vic crossed the parking lot, lit only by one humming street lamp, with a wide, jovial stride. As he shook his keys from the pocket of his slacks, thumbing the button to unlock the doors, his phone buzzed from the breast pocket of his Armani shirt.
Snatching it from its resting place, he tapped to answer. “?”
“Don’t you sound chipper for someone working late?” Yvonne slurred, the only hint he needed that she’d already cracked open tonight’s bottle of wine.
“Why shouldn’t I be chipper?” he playfully asked, turning to glance back up toward the room Karma had rented. A flash of her blonde locks appeared from behind the stained drapes. He raised his hand in a casual wave, but couldn’t tell from this distance if she returned the gesture. “I just finished showing a multi-million dollar estate that the buyers are very interested in, and now I get to head home to my loving wife.”
“Yeah, right,” Yvonne openly scoffed, her voice muffled by her glass as she took another sip. “We’re the ’ Cleavers. Hey, Cassidy is at the mall. I need you pick her up on your—“
Vic jerked his head to the right, in the direction of the neighboring gas station. Between the normal ebb and flow of rushing traffic, he heard the distinct snap of hoof beats pounding over pavement. “What kind of idiot would bring a horse out this close to the highway?”
“The highway? Where the hell are you, Victor?”
A moment ago the drum of the approaching rider had been coming from the south of him, Vic was sure of it. Yet somehow, without so much as a faltered step, it shifted to the north. “Stopped for gas, that’s all.” Vic paid little attention to the lie rolling off his tongue as he rose up on tiptoe and craned his neck to peer into the darkness.
“Oh!” Her momentary flash of accusation was all but forgotten at the exciting prospect of fresh booze. “Are you near Gordon ? I need a bottle of Amaretto.”
Vic stifled a cringe at the thought of his wife’s mixed drink induced wandering hands. If he wanted to fend off an overly hag that reeked of booze, he’d go visit Nana at the home. Her old biddy friends loved him, and putting in his time there helped secure his spot in her will. “I’d love to, pet, but I’d hate to keep Cass waiting.”
A hot, snorted breath heated the exposed skin of Vic’s neck, tickling down the collar of his shirt. He spun, his heart pounding painfully in his chest, and pressed his back to the car door. Chills raced up and down his spine, electrifying his entire body. Nothing. There was nothing before him but that lone buzzing light and the seedy motel. “Damn it! Punk kids!”
“And they have a horse?” Yvonne’s giggle morphed into a hiccup. “You better watch out, Vic. It could be one of those lesser known equestrian gangs.”
The lightning that flashed on the otherwise calm night was the only omen Vic needed to spur him into action. Throwing himself off the car, his trembling fingers fumbled with the door handle. Behind him, metal hissed free from leather. Slowly—with a cold, hard fist of dread clenching his gut—his head swiveled.
“Oh,” he said with a nervous lilt of laughter to the ominous symphony of black before him. “That’s … good. You got me. I really believed for a sec—”
Vic’s anxious, cracking plea morphed into a scream as the figure pulled back. The blade of their arched sword gleaming gold under the yellow-hued light.
Victor’s hands raised in the only defense he could offer. “No! !”
He sucked in one last gasp as metal winged through the air.
“Vic? Victor!” Yvonne screamed, panic clearing her alcohol induced haze. “What’s happening?”
The only response she received came in the form of a ghostly whinny … followed by a soft thump. Her shrieks were muted as the phone tumbled to the ground—right next to Vic’s still rolling head.
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