A princess on the run from her murderous stepmother hides out in the woods of Pennsylvania, under the protection of the “seven Founders” of a cult that promotes simplicity, hard work — and no sex. But when she meets her “prince” in the form of a reporter intent on exposing her, she discovers that there are needs even more powerful than survival, as he introduces her to the temptations of life she’s been trying hard to ignore…
For an investigative reporter, Stephen was having one hell of a time finding the woman he’d seen at dinner the night before. For Christ’s sake, the Penitent camp was just a couple of square miles in rural Pennsylvania. In a compound that was fenced in with barbed wire, no less. And the grand total population of this place was, what, maybe four hundred, with about half of them being women? Not to mention the fact that the woman he was specifically seeking was breathtaking, beautiful enough to put the world’s supermodels to shame. So really, how hard could it be to find her?
Very hard, apparently.
Stephen sighed. In his defense, the whole gender-separation thing was a pain in the ass. He couldn’t go right over to where the women were sitting during meals and scout her out. He couldn’t go into the kitchen where they worked, since domestic chores of any sort were designated a “Goodmaid’s province.” Another hurdle was the shapeless, drab clothes that all the women wore. If she had her back to him, she’d blend right in.
He grinned wryly. His editor had sold him on the angle that most of the people who joined the Penitents looked at it as a sort of Foreign Legion – a place to bury their pasts. If the woman was looking for a place to disappear, she’d picked a real winner.
Out in the few acres of fields, men were working… planting stuff, weeding stuff, something farm-y. Stephen knew that he was supposed to be out there, too, but he was convinced that finding the woman was more important. He had talked to a few of his dorm-mates, that morning during breakfast, but he didn’t think there was a story there. They all gave him the same runaround: they just wanted to live pure lives, they were sick of the temptations and lack of morals on the outside, the whole nine yards. No, if he were going to make a story out of this, it’d be the throwback treatment of women here.
And if he’d decided on who he wanted to interview… well, so what?
He spotted a group of women trooping across the Commons, heading for the woods, baskets of laundry in their arms. And there, right in the middle of them, was his blue-eyed girl.
His pulse picked up. He told himself it was because the sooner he could talk to the girl, the sooner he could get his story angle, and the sooner he could get out of this Amish ashram. But he knew that it had nothing to do with his story, and everything to do with seeing her again.
She was wearing another plain outfit, this time a lighter brown, resembling the cinnamon-apple oatmeal he’d eaten at breakfast. She wore a gray veil, and carried her laundry basket tucked under her arm, balanced against her hip like a pro. He wondered how long she’d been here, to be so proficient. She didn’t look old at all, maybe young twenties, if he had to guess. Other women were making their way with baskets, so he kept carefully back. No other men were following, he noticed. Good. Less potential witnesses.
He had every intention of breaking the “no gender interaction” rule. He just hoped that the blue-eyed girl’s obvious curiosity in him outweighed her loyalty to the cult’s strict tenets.
He moved carefully, at a distance, so as not to alert his quarry. There was a shallow river snaking through the property – more like a big stream. The women spread out along it’s curving length, each staking out her own private clothes-washing turf. They didn’t laugh, or sing, or even speak, as he would’ve expected them to. Instead, they worked in meditative silence. Absently, he remembered one of the tenets that Robert had been pushing on his opening day intro.
Work hard, keep solitary, stay pure.
The blue-eyed girl moved off further from the rest, going to a secluded nook where heavy foliage shaded a burbling section of water. Stephen moved into the shadows, watching her.
She sighed, glancing around. Then she tucked her veil up, revealing a swath of neck. Unbuttoning her sleeves, she rolled them up past her elbows, revealing the pale flesh of her arms. Her limbs were lithe, toned from hard work but not bulky with muscle. He watched as she quickly peeled off her shoes and socks, tying her long skirt in a knot to keep the edge from dipping into the rushing water. She stepped in, letting out a small gasp at the obviously cool water. Then Stephen heard her sigh with sensual pleasure, just standing there, her eyes closed, face turned toward the sun.
His cock tightened, going hard in a rush as he took in the tiny sound, the small, innocent look.
He cursed himself. It had been a while since he’d gotten laid, admittedly, but he’d gone for longer without his body being this damned unruly about it. He stared at her shapely calves, the delicate curve of her feet. It wasn’t like she’d gotten naked. For that matter, he’d managed to stay unmoved at some women who had stripped down to pure skin.
Why the hell is she affecting me this way?
It wasn’t like he was looking for a future with this strange woman, or anything. Hell, he probably had no shot at even a fling with the girl. He was just here to write a story – in, out, wham-bam. And unless he wanted to become like Abelard, living a monk-like existence next to his lady-love the nun, then he’d better snap out of this weird schoolboy obsession, and get his eye back on the brass fucking ring pretty quick. She might be beautiful, and mesmerizing, but in the end, she was just part of the story.
He stepped forward, clearing his throat.
She froze in the act of dipping a shirt in the water. Her violet blue eyes went wide, and her nostrils flared slightly. She didn’t look like she was going to run, but at the same time, she didn’t exactly look inviting. The hungry look she’d sent him the night before was clearly absent.
He smiled easily, stopping, giving her time to get used to him. “Hello,” he said, making his voice sound as gentle and harmless as possible. He didn’t want her suspecting anything.
Want some candy, little girl?
She didn’t respond. Her breathing was shallow, and from his closer vantage point, he could see her pulse beating strong and quick in the column of her throat.
He wondered what it’d be like to press a kiss against that trembling flesh.
He shook his head. Focus, schmuck. He needed to get her to relax, not bolt. He needed to gain her confidence. “So, ah… what are you doing there?” he asked carefully, blandly inquisitive, like he was a documentarian.
Her expression changed. Her eyes narrowed, and she looked at him, then down at the shirt in her hand, the soap in the other. Then she looked back at him, and to his surprise, the tiniest quirk of a smile kissed her full lips. “I’m planting corn,” she replied, a rich laugh in her voice.
Huh? “Planting…?” He frowned a minute, baffled. Then he realized: she was making fun of him. He grinned back broadly. “Duh. I guess it is pretty obvious what you’re doing. What I meant was, why in the stream? Isn’t there a washing machine here somewhere?”
She shook her head. “Machines are for people who want to waste their time on frivolities,” she said, in a rote, wooden voice that suggested she was quoting one of the Founders. Which she probably was. “You shouldn’t be here. You’ll get in trouble.”
The fear hadn’t completely left her eyes, he noticed. She glanced around, as if the Founders were hiding behind a bush or something. But when she wasn’t scouting, she was back to staring at him: quick, furtive glances, tracing over the entire length of his body. His skin tingled everywhere her gaze traveled.
Her skin flushed, a delicate, soft rose color.
“Well, it’s my first day,” he said casually. “I’m sure they’ll cut me a break, right?”
She laughed softly. “You are new, obviously.”
He liked the sound of her laugh. He smiled again, feeling warm. “I’m just trying to figure out how things work here.” He paused, then held a hand out. “My name’s Stephen, by the way.”
She stared at his hand, then turned away from it, dredging the shirt in the water and scrubbing at it vigorously with soap.
“And you are…?”
“B-beth.” She rinsed the shirt clean, then threw it on the grass, picking up another and repeating the process.
“Beth. Goodmaid Beth.” She didn’t look like a Beth. She looked like something more evocative. Helen of Troy might work. “It’s nice to meet you, Beth.”
He took another step closer, and she didn’t back away. She kept washing shirts, mechanically. He was almost in the water when she lifted a hand in warning. “Anything I can do to help?” he asked, waiting.
“I already told you, you’re not supposed to be here.” Her voice sounded breathless. “You’ll get in trouble.”
“You’re going to get me in trouble.”
He took a step in the water. He was only two feet away from her. He could smell her – clean and soft, like some kind of summer flower. He couldn’t think of the name, but he’d be able to remember this smell for the rest of his life.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said. “I just want to know more about you.”
He meant to say more about the Compound, the Penitents. But as soon as he got close to her, he knew he no longer gave a damn about those things – not right now. The article could wait. He wanted to know more about her.
“You can’t,” she said, her eyes darting toward the foliage.
“Why not?” He inched closer. Just a foot away, now.
“It’s forbidden.” Her voice was a low, lush whisper.
“Nobody can see us,” he said. “Besides, we’re just talking. There’s no harm in that.”
“Talking leads to liking,” she said, her voice a high-pitched squeak as he took one more step forward. “Liking leads to… to lust.”
“Another tenet of belief, huh?”
“And are you afraid of lust, Beth?”
He didn’t know why he asked the question, but once it popped out of his mouth, he found himself riveted to her answer. He stared at her face, her lips, waiting for her next sentence.
Her indigo eyes turned suddenly haunted.
“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes, I suppose I am.”
He felt a cold chill in the pit of his stomach. Had she been abused? Was that what she was running away from? The thought nauseated him, filling him with both a pounding fury and an equally aching need to… what? Defend her? Protect her?
He gritted his teeth, struggling to focus. “You don’t have to be afraid of me,” he said, trying to reassure her, even as his hands itched to free her from the ugly beige homespun she was shrouded in and cover her bare skin with his.
“Yes, I do,” she countered.
His eyes widened. He was trying to be gentle, here. Was his body’s intent that obvious?
“I promise, I won’t…” He was about to say I won’t touch you, but he found himself balking. “I won’t do anything you don’t want me to,” he amended.
“I know,” she said quietly. Her voice rang with sincerity… and trust.
He felt strangely humbled.
“Then what is there to be afraid of?” he said, striving for a light tone of voice.
She stared at him, and her tongue moved over her lips, a brief, cat-like motion that she obviously didn’t even know she’d done. The hunger in her eyes, her body, was palpable, and his body tensed in response. He was momentarily stunned by the sheer intensity of it.
“I want you to do things to me,” she murmured. “That’s why I’m afraid.”