Reluctant Companion

In a bleak future, the man with everything wants one more thing. Her.

Tiernan is a man with everything, and he’s not used to being denied what he wants. When he sees Madison from a distance, he makes the arrogant decision to take her. Her family needs her, but she has little choice except to become the Commander’s new companion, albeit reluctantly. Life in the hub of power isn’t what she expects, and neither is Tiernan. He’s dark and demanding, but there are flashes of tenderness that have her falling for the man she glimpses inside the cold and exacting commander of their territory. Which Teirnan is the real one—the tyrant or the tender lover? At first, it seems impossible that she could ever be happy with the man who forced her to give up her life, but feelings grow between them. Their relationship reaches a fragile new level that could deepen to something neither expected, if betrayal and treason don’t separate the lovers.

 

This is a full-length novel, approx. 80,000 words.

Excerpt

Madison paused in the process of wrapping baling wire around the fence post, suddenly sure she could feel someone’s gaze on her. She looked up from her task, seeing no one in front of her in the rows of grapes. The hiss of a steam engine made her jump, and she spun to find the source. It was out-of-place, since there were only a few steam cars in the entire province, and none of her neighbors owned one.

The sunhat she used to shield her face also blocked her view, so she swept it off with one hand, using the other to shove the sweaty locks of gold-red that cascaded downward up and out of her face. Cupping her hand over her eyes, she had enough shade to make out the insignia on the door of the car. Arching a brow, she wondered what the governor of their province was doing out this far from the center of the village. Tom Blaney had no reason to leave Graceport to visit the wineries in the outlying areas. It wasn’t tax time, and he didn’t seem to care much about the people living under his governance unless they could do something for him.

With a shrug, she returned to the job of repairing the goats’ fence. They provided milk that was crucial for survival, but if they got loose in the grapes, it would be disaster for everyone in the Cole household. The disquieting sensation of being watched persisted until the car finally started up and drove on down the hill a few minutes later. Releasing a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding, Madison put down the wire cutters and moved on to reinforcing the next weak section of the wood, thinking no more about the incident until much later in the day.

*****

It was late afternoon by the time she returned to the main house, a modest ranch-style built at least one hundred years before. Her great-grandparents had struck it rich in something called stocks—which she didn’t think referred to cows or other livestock—and had bought the winery as their weekend getaway. After The End, it had become their permanent retreat and had allowed them and their descendents a chance to survive and start over in the new world.

What had once been a charming, quaint building kept in pristine condition had now fallen into age-related disrepair. Materials weren’t easy to acquire. Had they been, it was still a losing battle. The house was built at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century and hadn’t been designed to withstand a century of hard living. For some reason, she noticed the house’s flaws today, wincing at the sagging porch and stairs, the peeling paint, and the missing shingles on the roof.

The sound of a horse neighing around the side of the house startled her, sending all futile musings about house repair flying from her mind. Biting back a sigh, she dropped her toolkit in the dust by the house, mentally hoping none of her neighbors had stopped by for a visit. After a long, hot day working in the sun, she wanted to fill the tub with a few buckets of tepid water and soak until the water turned ice-cold—which should take about an hour in the lingering heat of summer.

As she rounded the house, the horse came into view. No, more than one. Four? Her first thought was the Evans family had stopped by in a not-so-subtle attempt to mooch an evening meal. Almost immediately, she dismissed the thought, knowing they didn’t own horses. Having one horse was doable for most families, but four would be a luxury outside the means of the folks in the Yakima-Grace province.

Wearing a frown, she straightened her homespun cotton shirt as she stepped onto the front porch. At least the boards here didn’t sag as much as they did around the side of the house. With a cursory wipe on the rag rug to remove dust from her boots, Madison opened the screen door and entered her house.

It took a second for her eyes to adjust to the dimmer interior, and she couldn’t stifle a gasp when she recognized the forms of four soldiers standing awkwardly in the kitchen, with her mother standing in front of the pot-bellied stove, clearly waiting for the cast iron teakettle to boil.

What did Blaney’s people want? She knew they’d surrendered their required allotment of grapes and wine to cover their annual taxes, because she had helped pack and load it herself. As she rushed to her mother’s side, intent on sending Elaine to sit down at the shabby table, she realized it wasn’t the gray uniform of the local province soldiers. These men wore the black and silver uniform standard to the Commander’s army, stationed in Seattle-Archer. What had been anxiety suddenly escalated to pure terror. Why would the de facto president of their region send troops to their modest home? When these soldiers came, people disappeared.

Swallowing down the lump in her throat, she put an arm around her mom’s waist and led her to the table, saying, “You shouldn’t be out of bed, Momma.”

Elaine summoned a wan smile. “I couldn’t be rude to our guests.”

Shooting a baleful glance at the one who appeared to be in charge of the small group, she said, “I can imagine.” No doubt they had pounded on the door, threatening to break it down unless her mother opened up. Patting Elaine’s shoulder, she said, “I’ll handle it now.”

The teakettle whistled as she turned from her mother, and she took a moment to take it off the stove before spinning around to confront the soldier standing slightly apart from the others. “Why are you here?”

If he found her tone disrespectful, it didn’t show in his expression. He straightened slightly. “Commander Archer would like you to be his companion for dinner this evening.”

“Me?” The word was almost a squeak, and she had to clear her throat before continuing. “I’m sorry, but I think you have the wrong house or something. I don’t know the commander.”

A small frown disrupted his bland expression. “You are Madison Cole?”

With a bit of hesitation, she nodded.

He inclined his head just once. “You are the guest we have been sent to fetch, Miss Cole.”

“This makes no sense. I’ve never even seen…” She trailed off, remembering the eerie feeling of being watched earlier. Had the commander been in Blaney’s car? A shiver raced down her spine at the thought of the ruler of the Northwest Federation spotting her and deciding to have her for the evening. She wasn’t naïve enough to think dinner was the only thing he expected.

Clearing her throat again, she said, “Please tell the commander I thank him for the honor, but I really can’t leave. My brother and father on a supply run, and my mother is ill. I couldn’t possibly leave her and my little sister here alone.”

The soldier lifted a single dark brow. “You want me to tell Commander Archer you said no?”

Madison nodded. “Please.”

He blinked. “Look, Miss Cole, I can’t do that.”

She frowned. “Why not?”

“Because you don’t decline an invitation with the commander.” He ran a hand through closely cropped black hair, introducing a note of dishabille into his previously crisp appearance. “I can’t. You have to come with us. The consequences of doing otherwise…” He trailed off, looking pained.

Fear heightened another notch, making it difficult to breathe. As much as she wanted to keep protesting, a glance in her mother’s direction showed her Elaine was getting worried. The last thing her mother needed was to have this confrontation happen in her presence, where she would feel the need to stand by her daughter. If Elaine thought she didn’t want to go, her mother might do something crazy, like go for the hunting rifle. Sick as she was, her mother bear instincts were still strong.

Taking a deep breath, trying to diffuse the palpable tension, she managed a small smile. “In that case, I need a few minutes to change clothes.” Perhaps she could escape out the window and flee into the fields? It was a feeble plan, but at least it would get her away from the house and her mother’s concerned presence.

He shook his head. “That won’t be necessary. It’s a rough ride back into Graceport, and you’ll have an opportunity to freshen up before dinner.”

Clinging to the idea of squeezing out her bedroom window, she said, “But I’ll need something to wear after I freshen up.”

Once again, he shook his head. “Something will be provided, Miss Cole.”

Disappointment settled like a lead weight in her chest. Once she was riding with the soldiers, there wouldn’t be a chance to flee. After her arrival at Graceport, she’d likely be surrounded by Archer’s entire security force, making escape impossible. Was there no way out of the “honor” of sharing the commander’s bed for a night? “How thoughtful,” she managed to say in a dry voice.

“Do you have a horse, Miss Cole?”

She shook her head, not bothering to tell them her father and brother had taken Hack on their trading trip. They were due back in two days, and she wondered if she could somehow keep them from finding out about her pending humiliation after the fact. Squaring her shoulders, she decided not to be so defeatist. There would have to be a way to escape. She just had to remain alert and not hesitate to seize the opportunity when it arose.

*****

She ended up riding double with the soldier who had insisted she accompany them. He maintained a polite distance between them and engaged in meaningless small talk that required little conversation on her part. That was a blessing, because her mind was too preoccupied with the looming ordeal. Despite her determination to remain on-guard for an out, she couldn’t help her thoughts turning inward to dwell on what the evening might bring.

Although many girls her age were already wives or mothers—and had no doubt been lovers to men before marriage—she was still innocent at twenty. Her parents had tried to shelter her and protect her from harm. It was impossible to grow up around animals and not know what sex was, but she had always heeded her mom’s advice to wait until someone special came along. This commander was as far from special as she could envision. What awaited her was surely akin to rape, maybe even outright violent violation, depending on his proclivities.

By the time they reached the capitol of their province, she was hot and sweaty, with a stomach full of nausea. She’d been to Graceport a few times, but always as part of a family outing, with her father and brother nearby to offer protection. Only a crazy woman traveled alone, and she couldn’t have felt more alone if the soldiers surrounding her, and all the people milling about the streets, suddenly disappeared in a puff of smoke.

Today, the open-air market did nothing to delight or engage her senses. She surveyed the foods and wares with dead eyes, too afraid of her fate to find any pleasure in seeing so many people gathered together. There had to be at least a hundred shoppers and merchants in the milieu, which was a huge crowd to her.

The soldiers rode with purpose through the market, navigating a maze of streets that seemed to be leading them to the capitol building in the center of Graceport. The destination made sense. Obviously, the commander would set up shop in the seat of government for the province.

For the first time, she wondered why Archer was even in their area. What did the leading vineyard province in the Northwest Federation have to offer a man who lived in the capitol of the Federation? Archer must surely be used to luxury and the best of everything, even with limited resources and limited electricity. Hard to come by anywhere, those things were beyond scarce in their province. Only Blaney lived in any modicum of lavishness, and his mansion was no doubt humble by Seattle-Archer standards.

Perhaps the commander and Blaney were friends? Shady politicians often attracted like minds, didn’t they? Her father liked to say so anyway. Knowing how corrupt Blaney was, it increased her disgust to think of spending an evening with a man cut from the same cloth.

Her musings came to an end as they arrived at a building situated about a block from the impressive courthouse that served as Blaney’s headquarters. She recognized the three-story white building as the governor’s mansion, and it certainly seemed like one to her, having lived in a two-room house her entire life with two siblings and her parents.

An elegant woman in a flowing purple dress waited on the marble steps. She flashed a bright white smile that contrasted beautifully with her black skin as she started down the stairs to meet them. The soldiers halted their horses, and the man she’d ridden with handed her down to the ground carefully.

“Excellent, sergeant. I know Tiernan will be pleased you managed to find Miss Cole.” That bright smile, seemingly genuine, turned next to Madison. “It’s lovely that you could accept his invitation, Miss Cole.” She thrust out her hand in a motion that didn’t even allow Madison to think of refusing to shake it.

“One doesn’t say no to the commander,” she said tightly, forcing a smile that felt fake.

She laughed. “Not usually.” With a smooth motion, she threaded her arm through Madison’s, thus completing the transfer of prisoner, but in a way that didn’t feel threatening. “Come with me, and I’ll find you a place to wash. I imagine that ride was unpleasant.”

“I wouldn’t like to do it again, uh…?”

There was that smile again and it somehow suffused her with warmth, even in the circumstances. “Cleo Black.” A hearty laugh accompanied it. “Isn’t that just the most perfect name ever? I sometimes think my great-grandfather changed his last name after The End just to match the family’s skin tones.”

Feeling a bit disoriented, she didn’t reply to the friendly chatter as Cleo led her up the stairs and into the governor’s house. For an enemy lair, it sure was nice. The floor seemed to be marble like the stairs and shined to a high sheen. The walls were simple white, but with decorative wainscoting that caught the eye and added an elegant touch. Moving at a rapid pace to match the other woman’s, she didn’t get to pause and examine anything, but what she did see seemed to be in excellent shape. It was obvious where a good portion of Blaney’s profits from corruption ended up.

They ascended two flights of stairs covered with sumptuous burgundy carpet before stopping at a set of double doors. Cleo opened them and stepped aside to allow Madison first entry. “Here we are. Home sweet home…for tonight.”

The room featured two double beds and matching vanity tables with old-fashioned mirrors. “It’s nice. I, um, get to sleep here tonight?”

“This is my room, but it makes a good place for you to prepare.” After closing the door, Cleo cocked her head. “You don’t think the commander sleeps in this room, do you? I imagine Blaney’s so eager to get in Tiernan’s good graces that he’s probably given up his room for the night.”

Her stomach cramped, and she drew in a deep breath. “I don’t want to do this.”

Cleo blinked. “You don’t want to spend the night with Tiernan?”

She shook her head, wondering how anyone could find that so shocking. She didn’t even know the man. She’d never even seen him in person and knew next-to-nothing about him. For all she knew, he was a fifty-year-old bald man with massive fat rolls.

The other woman blinked dark eyes again. “Well, that’s…um…let’s see about getting you a bath.”

Hope fled at Cleo’s awkward attempt to avoid the subject, and she sank onto the nearest bed. Like an automaton, she followed Cleo’s instructions, allowing the other woman to insist she get undressed and taking the softest towel she’d ever felt to wrap around her naked body on the trip from the bedroom to the bathroom.

A touch of pleasure penetrated the fog of depression as she surveyed a real bathtub. Oh, they had one at the house, but it was never used. Water was too precious a resource to waste by hooking up a tub to their primitive plumbing system. If you wanted a bath, you took a small tin tub Papa had scavenged somewhere years before into the kitchen, filled it with a few gallons of water from the tap, and made do. That was the only bath she’d ever known, but she’d sometimes imagined what it must have been like before The End to turn on a faucet and fill up that big tub in the bathroom before lying in the water for hours.

This tub made that one look puny. With a small gasp of delight, she forgot about modesty in her eagerness to get in the steaming water. The towel landed on the floor as she walked to the edge, put in her feet, and slipped inside. With her bottom on the floor of the tub, the water rose almost to her ears, and she was able to fully stretch out. “This is amazing.”

“One of the perks,” said Cleo. “Now, I’m going to go fetch a few things and leave you to soak, Miss Cole. You still have a few hours before Tiernan eats dinner.”

For the moment, she blocked out everything, managing only a small wave at Cleo as she slipped deeper in the water, slowly letting her head slide underneath the surface. After a moment, she sat back up and spent a few minutes reading the bottles on the lip of the tub. There were three kinds of shampoo, and she selected the one that smelled like honeysuckle and vanilla. It lathered in her hands, unlike the baking soda paste they used at home, followed by a vinegar rinse.

Shampooing her hair became a sensual experience, and she reveled in working the soap through her long locks. She spent another long moment under the water to rinse out the lather before emerging and leaning back to let her mind wander and her body float. At least there was one good thing to come out of all this mess, even if it was something as inconsequential as a bath.

It was only when she realized that she was accepting surrender of her virginity in exchange for hygiene that she sat up abruptly, no longer enthralled by the bath. Her eyes darted around the bathroom, landing on a pair of shears on the counter by the sink. The water sloshed and spilled out of the edge when she stood up. As quickly as possible, she dried off with the soft towel before wrapping it around her. On slightly damp feet, she hurried to the sink, snatching up the scissors and pressing them against her thigh just as a knock sounded before Cleo reentered.

“Oh, good. I thought I heard you get out of the water. So hard to tear yourself away, isn’t it?”

Madison nodded, not moving until the other woman was right beside her. Then, with a fleetness born of fear and determination, she put her arms around Cleo, pressing the tip of the shears against her throat. “Get me out of here.”

Cleo trembled for a second before taking a deep breath. She sounded just as calm and friendly as she had only seconds ago. “I can’t do that, honey.”

She pushed just a bit harder with the scissors, not eager to hurt Cleo, but wanting to be taken seriously. “I say you can. They’ll listen to you. Get me out of this room.”

Cleo laughed. “Honey, they won’t listen to me when it comes to countermanding Tiernan. If I let you out of this room, fifty soldiers will be waiting to capture you. After that…well, I don’t know what’ll happen.”

It was her turn to tremble, though she didn’t release her hostage. “What’s Archer done in the past when someone tried to refuse?”

Shaking her head, Cleo said, “No one has ever said no, Madison. Most girls vie for his attention, and a good portion of them are saddened to be sent home after a night with him.”

With a sigh, she released Cleo, returning the shears to the counter. “I don’t want to sleep with someone I don’t even know. He could be old and ugly.”

Cleo grinned, acting as if she hadn’t just been at the business end of the shears. “Honey, Tiernan is anything but. Not only that, he’s also gifted.”

Madison tilted her head. “What do you mean?”

A sparkle appeared in Cleo’s eyes. “Gifted, honey.” She held out her hands several inches apart. “Very gifted. Blessed, really.”

Her cheeks flushed. “You mean his…manhood?”

The other woman laughed, but not in a mean way. “His cock, honey. It’s the best ride around.”

Her blush deepened. “Oh.”

Cleo patted her arm, leaning in close. “Look, you can look at this as some big sacrifice and consider yourself a prisoner.”

“That’s how I feel.”

Cleo lifted a shoulder. “Maybe you’ll change your mind. You could try changing your attitude. Put on a positive spin.”

She arched a skeptical brow. “How?”

Her new friend grinned. “Consider it a vacation. A one-night escape from real life, spent as Commander Archer’s companion, complete with luxurious surroundings, gourmet food, and the best wine. It comes with the best sex of your life, and if you please him, you’ll have favor with the man who runs the Federation. What could be better?”

Not expecting Cleo to understand, she said, “I could ask for love and something special. Momma always told me to wait until I had real feelings for a man. She told me not to barter my body for gain, whether it was food, shelter, or trading credits.”

Cleo’s eyes widened, and a soft sound left her. “Oh, I understand.”

“What?” asked Madison, feeling defensive.

“You’ve never…that is, you’re a virgin?” At Madison’s quick nod, she patted her arm. “It might not be the girlish fantasy you dreamed of, but I can’t imagine Tiernan would deliberately hurt you. I don’t think he’s bedded many virgins, but he’ll take care of you. Just tell him about your lack of experience, and he’ll be gentle.”

“How can you be so sure?”

Cleo’s smile was small, but reassuring. “I’m his personal companion, honey. I know Tiernan very well.”

Madison’s eyes widened as she realized she was discussing sleeping with the commander with his current companion. “Oh. I’m so sorry. Please believe me that I don’t want to hurt you. It’s not my choice to be here.”

Cleo waved a hand. “Really, it’s fine. Tiernan has several personal companions. He alternates between us. We’re a realistic bunch, my girl. You can love Tiernan every way imaginable, but only a fool falls in love with him. ‘Course, he’s smart enough to pick girls who know the score.”

She shook her head. “How can you stand that? It sounds so shallow.”

Her friend shrugged. “It is what it is. I couldn’t have the lifestyle I have if I weren’t his personal companion.” For the first time, shadows crept over her face, giving the other woman a hollow look that held traces of fear. “I won’t go back to the life I had before. Call it shallow or materialistic, but I have everything I need or want.”

“But it costs your body.”

Cleo shrugged. “It’s not a terrible price to pay, Madison. You just wait until tomorrow morning, after you’ve been his companion for the night. I think you’ll realize being his sometime-lover is one of those perks I mentioned, not a hardship.”

How she wanted to believe the other girl’s confident words. It would make facing him so much easier and would allow her to grit her teeth and just get through the night. Yet, she couldn’t help doubting her own ability to regard sex so casually. It went against everything she’d ever learned to not have strong feelings and mutual respect between her and the man she let into her body, especially the first time.

Still, what choice was there? She could go in like a martyr and risk angering Archer, or she could look at it as a new experience. This night could give her the opportunity to sneak a peek at a life she couldn’t ever imagine living. A small voice reminded her she’d never even dreamed of or asked for such a lifestyle, but she quashed that voice. The logical thing to do was try to enjoy what she could and endure the rest. It would be over by morning, and she could go back to her life as Madison Cole, vintner, rancher, and farmer, not alluring one-night companion to the commander of the Northwest Federation.

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