In episode 16 of In The Flesh, whisked away from Chapel House by Michael and the mysterious Maggie, Susan finds herself tucked away in the High Fells of the Lake District, where help comes from an old friend — one not particularly happy to see Maggie, and the help he offers may be as bad as the problem itself.
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In the Flesh is very dark paranormal erotica. When Susan Innes comes to visit her friend, Annie Rivers, in Chapel House, the deconsecrated church that Annie is renovating into a home, she discovers her outgoing friend changed, reclusive, secretive, and completely enthralled by a mysterious lover, whose presence is always felt, but never seen, a lover whom she claims is god. As her holiday turns into a nightmare, Susan must come to grips with the fact that her friend’s lover is neither imaginary nor is he human, and even worse, he’s turned his wandering eye on Susan, and he won’t be denied his prize. If Susan is to fight an inhuman stalker intent on having her as his own, she’ll need a little inhuman help.
It was deep night when I woke up with my heart hammering in my chest. I was groggy, disoriented and completely naked. It took me a few seconds to convince myself that I was no longer in the crypt at Chapel House. Then I recalled the events of the past – what was it anyway, twelve hours? Twenty-four hours? Maybe more. I remembered Michael quite literally carrying me away from Chapel House. I remembered Annie’s screams, and I remembered waking up in the arms of some man named Alonso, who clearly wasn’t happy at having unexpected guests in the middle of the night … or at least I thought it had been night. Nothing was very clear to me at the moment. The past few days were an insane blur that I still hoped against hope to wake up from and find it had all been just a bad dream.
Once my eyes had adjusted to the ambient light, the room was far from dark. The heavily carved wooden bed I was in looked ancient and battered. Next to the bed a trunk, no less battered, served as a bedside table, with a bare-bulbed lamp on top, cord disappearing over the edge into the dark. The other furnishings in the room looked to be a double-doored wardrobe and more trunks, lots more trunks and wooden crates. Clearly the room had been thrown together in a hurry to accommodate me, though as I turned onto my side it was easy to feel that the sheets and bedding were not only clean, but of the highest quality, possibly even brand new. The bed faced a large curtainless window, which opened to the night, to the light coming from the waning moon and the star-filled sky.
Without turning on the lamp, I stood and moved to the window, nearly tripping over my bag, which I had no memory of Michael grabbing before sweeping me away, but then I had not much memory of anything but fear and lust and anger. There was quite a bit of anger thrown into the pot when I found out Michael had kept the truth from me. The thing was, I had no memory of the truth myself. Could everyone be lying to me? None of it made sense. How could I have ever released a demon spirit from his prison beneath the crypt of Chapel House and set Him loose on my friend with the plan of returning to claim Him as my lover? I was a lot of things, and like most writers, I had a fair-sized streak of self-absorption, but I wasn’t vicious or cruel, and I considered myself a fairly decent human being in spite of all my neuroses and foibles. Of the two of us, Annie had always been far more self-absorbed, and I figured that was a part of her gift, a part of what made her as successful as she was. Not that I wasn’t successful, but my idea of success was quite different from hers.
As I moved toward the window, I had an overwhelming need to breath fresh air and was surprised to find that though the glass in the window itself seemed ancient, it opened with very little effort on my part. The air was that of high places, bracing and sweet, cold enough to raise chill bumps across my bare arms and delicious enough that I was reluctant to shut out the chill. After inhaling several lungsful of the intoxicating fell air and gazing up at more stars than I had any idea could be in a night sky, I made a more coherent effort to take in my surroundings. The bare slate floors were covered with a path of what looked to be very old Turkish carpets that ran from the bed to the window, in front of the wardrobe, and then to a door across the room, behind which I discovered a well-equipped bathroom – far more modern and luxurious than the rest of the room. I splashed my face with cold water, ignoring the urge to have a wallow in a very large claw-footed tub. From somewhere in the house, I heard the sound of voices, or thought I did anyway. I found my clothes neatly folded on a large trunk at the foot of the bed and slipped into them, now shivering from the cold breeze coming in the window I was not yet willing to shut. If someone was up in the house, perhaps they could answer some of my questions. Would Michael be here? What about this Maggie woman? Oh, I had a thing or two I wanted to say to her alright, don’t think I didn’t!
I pushed open the door that looked new and unvarnished and, on tiptoes, made my way down a long hall, my feet silent on the slate floor. The place was not totally unlike the crypt at Chapel House, the walls were bare stone and the windows along one side were deep as though they belonged in some Medieval castle, and certainly the view out the window from my bedroom had done little to diminish that notion. I half expected the staircase to be narrow and winding down the inside of a tower, but I didn’t make it to the stairs, wherever they were. Just down the hall next to my room, a set of open French doors led into a darkened study. There was an open set of identical doors across the room, which led out onto a balcony. It was from there I heard voices carrying on the night air from down below. I couldn’t make out the conversation, but I did make out my name, so I eased my way across the room and out onto the balcony. Below, I could see a narrowly terraced garden above a beck running steeply down the hunched back of the fell. In the garden on a stone bench sat two men in quiet conversation. Neither of them was Michael, but I recognized the bigger of the two as Alonso. He sat with his arm around the shoulder of the other. The tone of their speech was soft and conversational, and I leaned forward over the stone railing holding my breath to hear something, anything that might give me a clue as to what was going on and where I was. Alonso was speaking to his companion, who offered a soft laugh at whatever the man had said. It was as Alonso slid his hand down the man’s back to rest low on his hips and drew him close that I realized what I was watching, what I was listening to, had become intimate and no longer had anything to do with me. Just as I turned to go back into the study and back to my room, Alonso pivoted on the bench and looked up at me. I swallowed back a yelp, and stumbled away from the railing, not terribly subtle, but it was dark, and I’d managed neither to fall nor cry out. I certainly had done nothing wrong. The doors to the study had been open and inviting. If Alonso had not wanted me there, all he would have had to do was close the door. But then again, supposedly I was notorious for opening doors not meant to be opened.
I made it halfway across the study, heading back to my room when Alonso’s large form blocked the door in front of me, and this time I did yelp.
His full lips twisted in a wicked smile, then he offered me a very formal bow. “Alonso Darlington, at your service, Madame.” The man was not quite as big as Michael – nearly as tall, but of a more slender build. Still, he gave the illusion that he was much larger than even the angel. “I’m sorry for startling you, Ms. Innes. I forget sometimes to make noise when I approach. I have startled Reese terribly more times than I care to admit. Though the other members of my staff and my colleagues are used to my … unusual ways, for Reese’s sake, I truly am trying.”
It wasn’t so much his silence as it was his speed that startled me. No human could have moved from the garden below so quickly. “Reese is the one you were with?” I asked, steadying myself on the edge of a large antique desk that dominated the room, willing my pulse to slow to a gallop. If this Alonso wasn’t human, the last thing I wanted was to anger him by saying the wrong thing.
“The one you saw me with.” His face lit with a smile that I knew full well was reserved for thoughts of one’s lover. “Yes, that’s Reese.”
“I … I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to intrude.”
“You intrusion, my dear, is hardly your fault, and I do apologize for the state of the room you have been forced to endure. High View is being renovated at the moment, and we are in a shambles. And of course, I’m deeply sorry for my less than cordial welcome.”
“You don’t like Maggie, whoever the hell she is. I got that. Frankly, I don’t like her very much either, so no need to apologize.”
“It isn’t so much that I don’t like her. I have a great deal of respect for the woman, and in truth, I owe her much.” He moved to stand next to me, and I could feel him studying me, but looking into his eyes made me feel ever so slightly off balance, so I looked away, taking in the surroundings of what was not a study at all, but a lovely library that would have fit right into any stately home I’d ever toured. “It’s just that whenever Magda shows up, things get more complicated than I’d like them to be, and I try very hard to keep things simple and to not draw attention to myself.” As if he anticipated my next questions, he added. “Your friend is sleeping peacefully. Magda and your angel are with her at the moment.”
“He’s not my angel,” I snapped.
Alonso offered a low, throaty chuckle. “Oh I think that he is, my dear.” Before I could protest, he pulled an iPhone from the pocket of his black jeans, punched in a number and waited for a second, then I heard a woman answer.
He offered me a quick, reassuring smile that was nearly as hypnotic as my first glance into his eyes. “Talia, darling, if you’re finished, our guest is awake and we have need of you in the library.” He returned the cell phone to his pocket and motioned me to the leather sofa in front of his desk. I happily obliged, my legs still feeling none to steady. “You must be hungry. I’ve had Cook prepare something for you, figuring that the monstrosity who held you prisoner would have had little forethought for your creature comfort.” Then he added, “no doubt your angel has encouraged you to eat. Food is always essential in the presence of magic or one can find oneself in serious trouble.”
I didn’t bother to tell Alonso that the monstrosity he referred to had, indeed seen to my creature comfort, though I had no idea how long ago it had been. It bothered me that I found myself wanting to defend Him.
Alonso sat on the edge of the desk and crossed his legs at the ankles. I noticed he wore scuffed hiking boots, but then that was to be expected in the fells. “You say you have no memory of releasing this … entity into the world?”
“I have … sketchy recollections of dreams I had that night, the night it must have happened, but honestly, I don’t know how I could have done such a thing. I couldn’t even find my way around the shamble of a garden at Chapel House, and I had no idea where the key was to the place where He was apparently kept prisoner. I seriously doubt if Annie did either.”
“He … yes, well it would have been easy enough for him to guide you and for him to give you the location of the key if a physical key were necessary. I’m inclined, however, to believe that the key was magical, and you, being a Scribe, would indeed have the imagination to figure out what was needed to release … him.”
“But why would I do that? Why?” I asked.
Almost before I knew he had moved, Alonso sat next to me and took my hand into his, which was large, slightly calloused and cold. My first urge at the rush of current up through my arm and straight to my heart was to pull away, but his grip was firm, and I was afraid to move, feeling like a rabbit in the headlights. Then he spoke, and I found myself relaxing into the hypnotic lilt of his voice, with its slightly strange accent and its deep-chested baritone. “For the love of your craft, Ms. Innes, for the love of your craft is reason enough. Surely you know that by now.” He stroked the back of my hand with his thumb, and I found myself calming still further. “Were you not inspired by the crypt at Chapel House, by the tangle of the garden, by the fact that it was once holy ground? I’m certainly no writer, and yet such places stimulate my imagination. Do you not think that such an entity as the one you’ve released would have recognized your urge to tell a story, your imagination so stimulated and taken advantage if it were at all possible.” Then he leaned close, holding my gaze, and I felt as though I were falling. “Does not the Bible itself say that ‘the word became flesh and dwelt among us, that the word is living and active and sharper than any double edged sword?’ Words have power, my dear woman, power that nothing else in the history of human culture, nothing else in the history of our human nature have. The storytellers of old were revered. They sat in the presence of kings and queens as their equals.” With a sweeping gesture, he took in the bookshelves that rose from floor to ceiling all around us. “Some of the words in this room were written thousands of years ago, those who penned them have long ago turned to dust, and yet we read their words, their stories, and we’re transported, at times transformed by the minds of men and women long dead. Surely you don’t think that an entity who has existed as long as the one connected to Chapel House would not know this, would not seize the opportunity to take advantage of the magic of the mind of a Scribe and the stories she can create?”
“But it was never my intention. I didn’t mean to. I only … We were drunk, excited about Annie’s new home. We were celebrating, telling stories. I …”
Alonso smoothed the hair away from my face and held my gaze. “You underestimate the power of your magic. I understand my darling. You’re not the first Scribe to have done so, nor are you the first to have paid a high price for such a mistake. You’re among the greats in that.” He glanced around the room at the myriad books, and then offered me a reassuring smile. “Never mind. First you must eat, and then we shall see what we can do to aid your memory.”
Almost if by magic, a man dressed in full livery arrived with a silver tray and sat it on a table near the window. Alonso took my hand and guided me to sit in front of eggs, toast and porridge all washed down by rich dark French roast coffee. He watched me eat silently making no effort to join me. But then it was the middle of the night.
I had just finished the last of the toast with homemade raspberry jam when a tall woman in a form-fitting turquoise dress knocked softly on the open door and let herself in. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. She was — well for lack of a better word, she was beautiful. She had dark, thick hair, startling blue eyes, and she had that way about her that made more ordinary people, myself included, want to be close to her so that they could look at her, just constantly look at her because surely this kind of beauty couldn’t be real. Then I was reminded of Alonso’s sudden movement, of his all but admitting he wasn’t human, and I suddenly wasn’t so sure about the woman either.
Alonso stood and embraced her, kissing her on the cheek. The two mumbled softly for a few seconds, glancing occasionally over their shoulders at me. Then he took her hand and led her forward. “Ms Innes, I’d like you to meet Talia. She’s a colleague and a dear friend of mine. She knows your problem and recovering lost memories and understanding people’s dreams is her specialty.” He shrugged. “Well, one of them, anyway.”
The woman studied me for a second, then smiled and nodded her greeting. I seemed incapable of doing anything more than smiling and nodding back.
“Now that introductions have been made,” I forced my gaze away form her and back to Alonso, “if you’ve had enough to eat, me dear Ms. Innes, and you’re ready, Talia is going to sleep with you.”