The following is an unedited (so please forgive typos) sneak peek from the first chapter of Almost Gothic (Suncoast Society 65) which is Rusty and Eliza’s story. Enjoy! 🙂
Rusty fell in love with Eliza when he was sixteen years old, on the day they met.
That also happened to be the first day she thoroughly kicked his ass.
It was the first weekend of their sophomore year of high school, and the first weekend their medieval LARP group had gotten together since school let out for summer break late last May. He’d never seen Eliza before that day, but she’d been invited by one of his friends who shared Biology with her during second period.
Brown eyes and short, reddish-brown hair, slim, she was dressed in a men’s costume—a blue tunic, grey leggings, authentic-looking leather boots, and black leather bracers on both arms.
Not cheap-ass, Costumes-R-Us bracers, either. Custom-made, embossed leather, and considering how small she was, they had to have been fitted to her.
The green thread of envy over kids being better equipped than him had never extended to women before, but this girl looked like she’d just walked out of the 1600s and was ready to battle somebody.
Some of their group, comprised of kids and adults, was either in SCA, involved in BARF or the Sarasota Medieval Fair, or other local Ren Fair groups, or all of the above.
The rest of them just liked to dress up, run around, and beat the crap out of each other with fake weaponry while pretending to talk in very bad British, Scottish, and other accents.
What Rusty hadn’t realized at that time, however, was that Eliza was a weapon.
And there was not a damn thing fake about her.
He was about to learn that.
Apparently his friends thought it’d be funny to pair him with her to spar, since she was new to the group, he didn’t have a girlfriend, and they knew he hated fighting women—unless he knew they could hold their own against him—because he was terrified he’d accidentally hurt them.
Well, that was one of the reasons. The other reason he kept to himself, because no one else needed to know that. And based on his size, everyone assumed the first reason.
That meant there were only two women he’d fight, and both of them were in their twenties but neither was there today. One was a karate black belt and the other a kickboxing teacher who’d spent eight years as an MP in the Marines over in the Middle East.
Already six two, despite being gangly, he’d grown into his limbs and was fast and sure. Two years of judo hadn’t hurt any.
Except the local rec center, where he’d been taking the classes for free, lost their instructor and that meant an end to his lessons. No way his mom could afford to pay for them.
Another reason he wasn’t in SCA or active in the local ren fairs yet, because it just wasn’t in their budget.
This group was free to all comers, and since they met at a county park, it didn’t cost them anything for the facility. There were people there dressed in everything from shorts and T-shirts, all the way up to full plate armor.
Rusty had cobbled together his tunic with clearance fabric for a buck a yard and a sewing machine he’d checked out from the library for two weeks after the librarian spent ten minutes showing him how to thread it and change out the needle in case he broke one.
His mom had found the black, plus-sized women’s leggings at a thrift shop, and he’d taken them in at the waist so they’d fit him and cut the elastic stirrups off the bottom. They hit him about six inches above his ankles, which was fine, because he wore second-hand leather hiking boots and black socks.
In other words, he’d put in some effort despite his lack of funds.
His wasters, a short sword and a broadsword, both wooden, he’d bought used from another kid after mowing lawns for neighbors to earn the money. And the same friend’s dad had just set up a garage forge and was going to start teaching them how to make better, more realistic weapons this fall, once the weather cooled a little. Rusty had made a wooden shield that looked like crap but had saved him a few bumps and bruises over the years.
Of course Duke, one of the guys running the combat today, ordered Rusty and Eliza into a combat area first. They used an elimination process with three chalk circles in the grass, but made sure everyone got to fight at least once per session. Sometimes the older kids and adults would spar with the younger, less experienced ones, not giving them an easy win but letting them get some time in, at least.
Rusty swallowed hard as he stared down at the girl, who was maybe five three. Instead of a sword she wore a long leather pouch slung crossways on her back, the strap to the front.
A challenging gaze on top of a confident smirk beat its way into his heart and almost made him take a step away from her.
“Don’t hold back, dude,” she softly said.
He forgot to use his accent. “You’re a girl.”
Her smirk widened. “Thanks for noticing.”
Rusty’s heart did a weird little shimmy he’d never felt before. “Rusty.”
“Eliza. We gonna talk or fight?”
“Come on, Rusty!” Duke yelled from outside the circle in his fake Scottish accent. “Move yer bloody arse. Time’s a-wastin’, boyo.”
Rusty drew his waster from his belt, the short sword this time, and readied his shield.
She didn’t even have a shield, and her hands were still empty.
Duke blew his whistle and Rusty found himself circling as Eliza pivoted in place, looking all too confident for her stature and unarmed status when compared to him.
Fuck. Goddammit, Duke. He knew this was a setup, that Duke and the others were eagerly anticipating this fight because Rusty would basically let her take swats at him until she wore herself out and he could finally go in for a non-assholish kill.
He couldn’t get a good look at what was in her pouch either, because she kept her back to him as he circled.
“You need to draw your weapon, M’lady,” he said in character. This week his British accent was more Tom Baker’s Doctor than Cockney accent. He was still trying to decide on one, but after someone telling him he sounded like the cereal commercial leprechaun last year, he’d leave the Irish accents to someone else to mangle.
Her gaze narrowed. “I shall,” she said so quietly that he knew only he could hear her and he couldn’t tell if she was using an accent or not. “Once you quit acting like a puss.”
Something inside him snapped. Yes, it was wrong to fight a woman. But he suddenly wanted to kick this woman’s ass for accidentally stepping on that emotional landmine she didn’t even know was there.
He was never really sure what happened next, despite everyone else going quiet as they watched the demolition take place. He’d lunged, shield up and sword ready to take a strike at her thigh, which would be counted as a disabling landed hit and end the match.
Except…next thing he knew, he was on his back, the air driven out of his lungs by the impact from her somehow sweeping his legs out from under him and him hitting the ground. Now she had two foam-covered sticks in her hands and he desperately used his shield and his sword to deflect her hits, which fell fast, hard, and heavy.
He could tell from the light in her eyes and the grin on her face that even though she could easily go for a disabling hit, she wanted this fight to continue.
She was toying with him.
The way he’d pretty much expected to toy with her.
Reinforced when she landed a staccato series of blows on his shield that painfully jarred him all the way to his shoulder before she stepped back so he could scramble to his feet.
Now everyone was cheering, for her, for him, he wasn’t sure. Around him, the world faded as he met her gaze and recognized a darkness there that spoke to him.
This time, he didn’t hold back when he charged, letting out a roar as he did.
“There you go, barbarian,” she softly said as she feinted and dodged and deflected his blows with her sticks. “Let’s do this right, aye?” She moved like she was trained, and it finally hit him squarely between the eyes that she’d had martial arts training of some sort.
He stepped back to reevaluate his attack, circling each other now, and he felt like the prey instead of the hunter. He wasn’t used to this. His judo training had all been unarmed combat. But whatever she’d had, she used her sticks like they were extensions of her, not just blindly swinging at him like some kids did when they watched too much Robin Hood on TV.
That funny little shimmy his heart had made earlier returned and now pounded in his skull, and it wasn’t just the thrill of combat, the exertion under a hot Florida August afternoon sun, or old nightmares accidentally dredged close to the surface by her words.
Their joust started in earnest, him unable to land any hits on her as she fought two-handed as easily as he did with one, no fumbles in coordination, no hesitation. It was almost like she anticipated every move he made and countered it before his brain could even send the signals to his limbs to take action.
A step behind her the entire round.
No doubt about it. About ten minutes in, he was sweating his balls off and she looked like she’d just stepped out of a deep freeze. Part of him wanted to blindly charge her again just to force her to make the kill and end this, because he sensed she was enjoying their sparring too much to do that on her own.
Part of him never wanted this to end.
For the first time in his life, he truly understood all the bullshit in the rock ballads.
He wanted to remain a step behind her for the rest of his life.
It was his own stupidity that brought it to a close. At some point, his left hiking boot laces had come untied, and he stepped on them with his right foot and tripped himself as he tried to pivot from one of her blows. He couldn’t bring his shield or sword up fast enough to deflect, and she didn’t realize he was going down until after she’d made contact with his right side.
“I yield, M’lady,” Rusty said, finally remembering they were supposed to be in character.
Duke blew his whistle. “Kill! Match to the lady!”
Around them, everyone cheered as Eliza smoothly slipped the sticks back into their pouch without taking her gaze off him.
Then she extended a hand to him to help him up.
He dropped his sword and let her, the darkness between them burning hotter and brighter even than the sun.
She smiled up at him. “Let’s go sit in the shade and get some water in us.”
He nodded, then bowed from his waist. “After you, M’lady.”
Love Slave for Two: Resilience (book 5) is now available.
Happy Spanksgiving (Suncoast Society 62) is now available.
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