Hold My Place
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Obsession never dies.
When librarian Sigrun falls head-over-heels for the sophisticated and very married Edgar Leyward, she never expects to find herself in his bed—or his heart. Nevertheless, when his enigmatic wife Octavia dies from a sudden illness, Sigrun finds herself caught up in a whirlwind romance worthy of the most lurid novels on her bookshelves.
Sigrun soon discovers Octavia wasn't Edgar's first lost love, or even his second. Three women Edgar has loved met early deaths. As she delves into her beloved's past through a trove of discovered letters, the edges of Sigrun identity begin to disappear, fading into the women of the past. Sigrun tells herself it's impossible for any dark magic to be at play—that the dead can't possibly inhabit the bodies of the living—but something shadowy stalks the halls of the Leyward house and the lines between the love of the present and the obsessions of the past become increasingly blurred—and bloody.Mixing lyrical prose with simmering terror, Hold My Place is a modern gothic horror worthy of Shirley Jackson's nightmares and Daphne DuMaurier's dangerous lovers.
"Hold My Place is a dark, sensuous tale about obliterating love, and Windwalker's superb prose fairly drips with beauty. You simply must read this haunting book." —Mercedes M. Yardley, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of Little Dead Red
"Sinister undertones steadily build into a genuine sense of doom...as thought-provoking as it is harrowing." —Publishers Weekly
"With ethereal prose [Hold My Place]'s departure from genre tropes will make it a favorite with gothic-horror and dark-romance readers." —Booklist
"A satisfying blend of romance and ghost story.... Hold My Place is anything but ordinary or predictable, despite its firm roots in the horror world." —Midwest Book Review
"Brimming with muted eroticism, Hold My Place is a dark romance novel punctuated by longing, lingering spirits and love without end." —Foreword Reviews
Release date: January 25, 2022
Publisher: Black Spot Books
Print pages: 170
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Hold My Place
I remember his first breath on my body. Sweet and warm with port wine, his words skated over the little hairs on the back of my neck, tumbled down my collar.
The master chef whose cooking class I had taken plucked the sticky mess from my hands. I laughed nervously, flushed with heat from my inexpert efforts to properly knead the dough.
“Like this,” he said.
A month ago, the library board had held its annual Christmas dinner at La Table, the gourmet French-Asian restaurant food bloggers kept raving about. The chef had come out to say good night and accept our accolades, and the moment I saw him, my fork became heavy in my hand. I lost all desire for food. My gaze clung to the curve of his lips, the sharp line of his clean-shaven jaw, the long lock of dark hair lying against the taut muscle of his neck. He voiced some sort of pleasantries, but I didn’t hear a word. His left ring finger, dark against his kitchen whites, gleamed with gold, and I sucked in a breath, feeling robbed.
I was hardly a shrinking violet—even in library circles, throwback goths covered in red and black tattoos tended to garner some attention—but that night, I might as well have been invisible. His eyes met everyone’s but mine. Afterward, the chef returned to the kitchen, while I didn’t take another bite, woodenly contributing as little conversation as necessary until I could make my escape. Instead of calling a car, I’d walked home, stomping through slushy snow and willing my heated skin to cool.
I’d lain awake until the wee hours, the bottle of wine by my bed serving no purpose but to enflame the wicked thoughts confusing me even as they consumed me. I was no girl, flush with infatuation. I was a woman, perfectly content alone—particularly if the alternative was the mewling artifice I’d watched so many of my friends adopt, pretending at weakness and softness to accommodate the egos of their partners. Male or female, it didn’t matter. Someone who wasn’t powerful always seemed to want to be, so the cost of their companionship was high. Or I might be too frugal, but at any rate, I refused to pet and stroke a fat barn cat and call it a tiger.
Nor had I ever been one of those women who craved the illicit, chasing after self-proclaimed bad boys and semi-committed men. I tended to be too pragmatic for secret love affairs. When the whole relationship is predicated on the fact the other person can’t be trusted, I think it puts a dampener on things. And it’s way too much work. All those lies and excuses and late-night assignations. I need my beauty sleep. The library opens at nine sharp every morning, and while I could probably be persuaded to stay up late for a thousand-year-old vampire lover or a banished Norse god, anything less just doesn’t tempt me.
I have a weakness for paranormal romance. So what? Librarians have the most degenerate taste in literature there is. Why do you think we’re forever trumpeting the cause of banned books?
All this simply to say my brain should have relegated this beautiful man to the uninteresting column almost immediately.
Instead, I lay sweating under the ka-thumping ceiling fan, fingers plucking at hot, slick skin beneath tangled sheets, the uncoiling release of my flesh only wrenching tighter the anguished anticipation of my soul. He was mine, something whispered harshly in the back of my mind, he was mine first, even though God knows I’d never seen him before.
The next morning, I took a hot shower before work and told myself I was washing the night away, but thoughts of the man intruded again and again. When I found the gourmet cooking class advertised for February, I ripped out the newspaper page and balled it up. Fully intending to toss it.
But I stuck it in my pocket.
Here I am, two weeks later, abusing beignet dough in a class of nine other no doubt equally infatuated women. How humiliating.
When Evan, my coworker and friend, asked why I’d signed up for cooking classes when I fed myself nachos and burritos six nights a week—a woman needs one night reserved for martinis—I’d claimed it was my foray into the dating scene. That I’d rather meet a man who I knew could cook than find someone online or in a bar. I was glad Evan couldn’t see me now. With not an eligible man in sight, he’d never let me hear the end of it. Based on the amount of cleavage and red lipstick on display, the other students suffered from the same malady as I did where Chef Edgar was concerned.
Edgar Leyward was his name.
I’d never known an Edgar before. Kind of an old-fashioned name, like Harold or Frank or Herbert. His angular bone structure reminded me of fabled giants and begged me to draw my fingers over the bladed edges of his face. His dusky skin tone, slightly darker than mine even in this clime of perpetual rain and gray skies, evoked the Northwestern tribes I’d come to associate with this part of the coastline but could have easily been credited to the Mediterranean or the South American continent. His name gave no clues, nor did the cuisine of the French fusion restaurant his creations had boosted from middling to sublime.
At that moment, though, I focused on the hypnotic rhythm of his long fingers, dusted with flour, working the tender, sticky dough. “You’re not punishing the dough,” he told me, his voice husky with equal parts restrained impatience and laughter. “You’re summoning the beignets.”
Handsome he might be, but apparently still as pretentious as any French chef worthy of the name, I thought. “Like a demon?” I asked, not bothering to hide my own amusement.
“Like a lover,” he told me. Though, he didn’t bother to cast a glance my way, I could feel myself flush to the roots of my black hair. “Like a lover who has forgotten your name and your face, who can only recognize you by your hands on their body.”
He ruined the effect by throwing a broad wink at the student across the table from me, who had stopped kneading and was watching him open-mouthed. He thrust my dough back at me.
“Just don’t beat it half to death,” he concluded. “You’ll make the bread tough instead of flaky.”
My classmate—the ‘Hello my name is’, sticker on her T-shirt identified her as Tiffany—pulled herself together with a visible effort and commenced folding and pressing her dough.
“Well worth the price of admission,” Tiffany murmured, casting me a conspiratorial glance.
I shrugged, trying to forget how my whole body had gone cold beneath his breath, even as my heart thudded nearly out of my chest. “If you go for the oversexed malcontent type,” I muttered back.
She laughed out loud, drawing the gazes of the other eight students in the room. “Who doesn’t?”
I don’t, I grumpily thought, giving the dough a good whack out of sheer contrariness. Suddenly I was well and truly ashamed of myself for even signing up for this class. I could hardly disdain Tiffany for her crush when my whole reason for being here was clearly the same as hers.
I smiled slightly, and congratulated myself on my black denim overalls and white tank top that displayed my degenerate status but none of my cleavage. Several of the sleekly coiffed students had stared askance at the Celtic animals and Norse gods swarming my bare arms. At least I was less obvious than them.
Needless to say, my beignets turned out on the stony side of soft. I told myself I didn’t care. After all, as far as I was concerned, the whole purpose of beignets was to draw me out of the house, not trap me in the kitchen. A steaming pastry, a cup of spicy black tea, and the merry bustle of a street corner café was my idea of a perfect morning. Still, I swallowed an unexpected lump of jealousy as Edgar exclaimed over some other tart’s perfect flaky sweet.
I laughed at my pun and then choked on air, being the graceful creature of mystery I am. My hacking drew the chef’s attention, and he stared down at my little pasty squares of concrete with undisguised dismay.
“Oh,” was all he could summon up after wrenching off a corner and chewing it with what I felt was an unnecessary exaggeration of force.
I shrugged. “Slap a little Nutella on those babies, they’ll be delicious. I could even take the leftovers to work. The guys will love them.”
I could have sworn I saw tears of restrained laughter in his golden-brown eyes. I’d never seen eyes quite that color. I should have dismissed them as boring old brown, but they were shot through with light, like sunlight behind a shattered piece of amber.
“Will they?” he asked dubiously, swallowing with effort.
“Of course, they will. Everything’s better with Nutella.”
He simply nodded, no doubt thinking if this crazy woman was happy with what she paid for, he wasn’t about to argue. He continued with his review of the students’ work, refilling wine glasses and sharing tips as we packed up our food and got ready to head home.
“Next week, we’ll be making duck a l’orange with a bit of Chinese flair.”
Now, libraries are fiercely organized realms. Have you ever noticed how many decimal places can stretch out to the right in the Dewey Decimal system? Not to mention how anal we are when it comes to alphabetizing. A place for everything and everything in its place is the rule of law in a library, which naturally requires me to be completely scattered in every other aspect of my life. There was absolutely nothing deliberate about the fact I was the last one to gather up all my stuff and cram it into my black leather shoulder bag. Absolutely nothing.
Not that Edgar seemed to notice. He was cleaning up with his back to me. I clacked past him in my clunky boots, and he called me back as I reached the door.
Impossibly, I felt his tongue shape my name. I froze and forgot to breathe. I wanted him to say it again.
And he did.
“Sigrun, stay. Have another glass of wine with me.”
Icould have told myself a few more minutes in each other’s company was perfectly innocuous. After all, we’d all been drinking wine together during the cooking class. What would one more glass and a few minutes of conversation hurt?
But when I steeled myself to look straight into those amber eyes and say yes, the rush of hunger suffusing me made the lie impossible. More than simple lust, it was an ache, a terrible longing to lay my hands not only on his body but on his soul. I lowered my gaze, quelling a shudder. I had no hope of him not seeing the wild avarice in my eyes.
He didn’t open another of the bottles of port standing on the counter. Instead, he took my elbow and guided me out of the kitchen, into the dim sconce-lit dining room of the restaurant proper. Chairs splayed their legs indecently atop the intimate tables, and all but the sidelights were turned off. Edgar seated me at the bar.
I placed my palms on the gleaming walnut wood and willed my blood to slow its mad rampaging through my veins. From behind the bar, Edgar poured a glass of Burgundy wine for each of us before coming back around to sit beside me.
I wrapped both hands around the crystal and sipped slowly, already covetous of these brief moments we’d stolen. The rich liquid slid down my throat, and I imagined that one of Edgar’s long, broad fingers traced its path on my skin.
I might have been content to simply sit there a long time, lost in the rhythm of his breath, in the faint warmth emanating from his thigh resting so near mine, but he wanted more.
“So, Sigrun. Are you a librarian or merely on the board?”
My eyes widened. “You—you know who I am? You saw me?” I could have sworn his eyes hadn’t rested on me that night four—or was it five?—weeks ago for an instant.
He laughed low. “Who could miss you?”
I quirked my brows. Fair point, but he’d done a damn fine job of pretending otherwise. I hadn’t caught even the slightest flicker of recognition when I showed up in his class tonight.
“Librarian,” I conceded. “Do I strike you as a board member?”
I decided I would happily make twelve kinds of a fool of myself to keep hearing that sound.
“Hey, the times, they are a-changing, you know. Believe me, nobody who looks like you worked in the library when I was a kid.”
“To be fair, I kind of snookered them,” I confessed. “I wore long sleeves to all my interviews, and I may have toned down the makeup a bit.” I batted the thick fake lashes glittering with tiny crystals. “And wearing black to an interview is pretty much expected. They just didn’t know it was the primary color in my closet.”
“I can’t imagine them being disappointed.”
“Well, I’ve been working there for six years now, so they must be reasonably satisfied by my skills. And honestly, all the stereotypes about librarians couldn’t be more misunderstood. We’re all nonconformists.” I warmed to my topic and the wine. “People forget when the tired old trope of the spinster librarian was trotted out, being a spinster was an act of revolt. A woman who chose learning over a man? Shocking! And the only way men could justify that possibility was to give her Coke-bottle glasses and a hairy wart.”
Edgar chuckled softly, his eyes following my mouth as I spoke. “I can see you haven’t devoted any thought to this at all. But no Coke bottles for you.”
I shrugged. “Actually, I’m blind as a bat. I wear contacts most of the time, but if you saw me with my glasses on, you’d concede I meet the requirements. I keep my warts shaved, though.”
This time, he laughed out loud. “Thank God.”
“What about you? How long have you been at La Table?” I set my wine glass down a bit too hard. “Scratch that. I don’t really care. What I want to know is why you’re drinking and talking here with me instead of with your wife.”
Yes, I favor the direct approach. Life is short. I wasn’t inclined to pretend, even to myself, that I was unaware of what was happening.
He didn’t look surprised, though, or even taken aback. He glanced at the worn gleam on his finger then back at me without flinching.
“It’s a strange thing, isn’t it?”
“No,” I protested. “Not really. What could be more predictable than a man who cheats?”
I found myself growing perturbed at his apparent inability to take offense. Weren’t chefs supposed to be notoriously temperamental?
“I’ve loved my wife longer than I can say,” Edgar said. “That will never change. I don’t know who I am without her. But I needed to talk to you. No. More than that. I needed to connect with you. Tell me you don’t feel the same.”
Less than an inch separated my hand from his on the bar. I wanted to yank my hands away, to look away, walk away.
But away was a circle, not a line, and everything in me that screamed run as quickly screamed run back.
“I—I don’t know,” I lied.
“Don’t you?” he asked softly.
He could have left me there in my indecision and hypocrisy, but he didn’t. Instead, he stood, swept away our glasses, and returned the bottle of wine. He held out his hand to me.
“Let’s go for a walk.”
“I think it’s snowing,” I said.
“So, we’ll get cold.”
When I recount this first night of ours to myself, I sometimes like to pretend I could have refused him. I could have waved goodbye, even chanced the temptation of a kiss on the cheek, and walked home alone. But truly, I think it was already too late. His gaze, his voice, even the unfulfilled promise of his touch, were a drug. Rules, laws, ethics, human decency—none of them seemed to matter, or even exist. All that was real was his breath drifting toward me, his hand reaching out for me.
Something skittered through my veins then, something darker than blood, swifter than thought, colder than a corpse. Something urging me closer, even as it pulled me further away from myself.
I offered no objection. I only wanted to stand under the umbrella of his eyes, let his voice rain down around our tiny respite and keep the world at bay.
I took his hand.
His warmth enveloped me. For a scant instant, my knees weakened. Every nerve tingled, and I almost fancied my spirit bursting past my skin and hovering there. Then, with a gust of desire, I whooshed fully back into my bones. Back into my want.
Not much of a torrid affair. It felt more like a ghost story as we shuffled along the empty, icy sidewalks, our only point of contact our cold, mittenless hands. Nearly midnight on a weeknight, and every silhouette was a shade of gray, from the austere faces of the buildings to the arrested sculptures to the sleet-cloaked streetlights. I couldn’t say what we talked about as we tromped on, huddled against the wind in our puffy parkas, or if we talked at all. We stopped at a gray fountain, its water drained for winter, and gazed at its starless basin as if we searched for pennies and their wishes. I’m not sure how we wound up at my apartment stairs.
I must have led us there, but my heart still sank when I recognized the address.
Edgar turned me to face him. His right hand, so icy cold, rested against my cheek. He didn’t say a word, only dropped the faintest kiss on my forehead, and strode into the enveloping night.
I mounted the steps to my apartment as if I were in a trance, half-frozen and unable to think past the bare brush of his lips on my skin. The door slid open beneath my fingers, though I had no memory of reaching for the keys. A wave of dizziness blurred my vision, and I clung to the doorframe as though the void of darkness at my back might suck me into a night I could not escape. When my eyes cleared, a new terror seized my throat. Where was I? Whose home was this? What were these candles, these books, these strange paintings with their staring eyes? Who was I?
I dared not step back, dared not even look into the blackness behind me. So, I stepped forward, closed the door as if it were my own. A voice inside this skin whispered softly, “Sigrun,” and the panic subsided.
Still, I lay that night in a stranger’s bed, staring up at her ceiling until dreams pulled me swiftly into a black river. Everything had changed.
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