A Deadly Angels Book #4
Avon Books
May 27, 2014
ISBN-10: 0062210467
ISBN-13: 9780062210463

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The Norselands, A.D. 850
When men turn beastly...

Mordr Sigurdsson, best known as Mordr the Brave, led his battle-weary men up the steep incline from the fjord to Stonegarth. His wooden castle and the surrounding village sat atop a high motte, a massive, flat-topped earthworks mound in the Frankish style, rising high above the surrounding area.

He’d already anchored his longships. Later, but not too much later, the ten vessels would be brought ashore to winter. Already, ice crusted the edges of the narrow waterway leading to his aptly named, grim estate in the far north where naught grew except boulders and hardy evergreens, which was fine with him. He obtained all he needed to subsist and prosper by trading, serving in the army of one grab-land king or another, or going a-Viking. A good life!

He and his men had been gone nigh on a year now, longer than he usually spent away from his homeland. In truth, they’d waited too long in trying to outrun winter for their return voyage, having to crack thickening ice ahead of them in many places, but that one last monastery to plunder had been too tempting. As a result, they were not only exhausted but cold to the bone with frost painting their fur cloaks and hats, not to mention beards and mustaches. Like Norse ice gods, they were. Their breaths froze into snowflakes on leaving their noses and below their noses snot formed icicles below into miniature tusks.

They were home now, though, and he for one intended to dig in for a long stay.

As if sensing Mordr’s thoughts, his hersir, Geirfinn the Fearless, said on a frosty breath, “My Aud best have the fire stoked for my arrival because I intend to burrow in till the spring thaw.”

Atzer Horse Teeth, one of Mordr’s hirdsmen serving under Geirfinn, guffowed from his other side. “Which fire would that be? The cook fire, or the fire betwixt your wife’s thighs?”

Mordr and other hirdsmen closeby laughed, causing more frosty cloud-breaths.

“Did I not mention burrowing?” Geirfinn replied with a grin, hardly visible through his huge, walrus-like, ice-crusted mustache. “I do my best work beneath the bed furs...burrowing.”

More companiable laughter. Ah, it was good to be home.

“First off, I want a horn of ale, or five,” Mordr declared, joining in the levity. “A warm bath to wash away the battle filth.”

“And lice,” someone called out behind him.

Lice were ever a problem for fighting men ofttimes forced to bed down in unclean places and unable to take their customary baths. Norse men did tend to bathe more than other men. ’Twas one reason women of all lands welcomed them to their beds. That, and other reasons, Mordr thought with silent humor at his own jest.

“Then I want a hearty meal in my great hall,” Mordr went on to encourage his men onward. Many of them wore heavy hauberks of chain mail. Plus, swords and battleaxes and shields added to the weight on the climb upward. “Yea, you are all invited to my welcome feast...after your burrowing.” He smiled before continuing, “Then a long night betwixt the thighs of my favorite concubine, Dyna.”

“Dyna of the big bosoms?” Atzer teased.

“Precisely,” Mordr said. “Forget a long night. Mayhap I will need a night and a day afore I am sated. I might even favor my wife Gulli with my attentions if she is not in her usual nagsome mood.”

There was much nodding. They all understood the pain of a shrewish wife.

But, nay, Mordr realized belatedly, there was something more important than all those appetites. Most of all, he yearned to see his children, Kata and Jomar. Though only one year apart, being six and five, respectively, his little mites were naught alike in appearance or personality. Kata had pale blonde hair that would no doubt darken over time into dark blonde or light brown like his own. She was a saucy wenchling with an impish grin, always up for some mischief or other. Jomar, black-haired like his mother Gulli, was more serious but always willing to participate in Kata’s childish adventures.

Yea, that is what he had missed most about Stonegarth. His children. He pictured himself, first thing, tossing Kata and Jomar into the air, giving them huge bear hugs and playful tickles. Was there aught more glorious to a man than the giggle of a child, especially when the boyling or girling was fruit of his loins?

He’d brought Kata dozens of ribands, all the colors of the rainbow, and for Jomar, there was a miniature sword crafted of hard wood with its own belted scabbard, so small it would fit around a man’s thigh. Mordr couldn’t wait to see their joyful appreciation. Also, both of them would delight in an intricately carved board game of hnefatafl with silly game pieces...giants, and trolls, and such rather than the usual king, his defending soldiers, and the opposing foemen.

His first clue that something was amiss came with the realization that none of his housecarls, or even any villagers, rushed to greet them. The second clue, which had his comrades-in-arms unsheathing their weapons, was no smoke rising from the roofs of his keep or any of the longhouses and outbuildings that comprised Stonegarth on the flat-topped mountain. Always there should be hearth smoke, even in the summer months, from cook fires, if not for heat. The ominous silence had them all on alert.

And then they came upon the first of the macabre scenes. In the outer courtyard lay the dead bodies of his guardsmen, frozen into stiff, grotesque postures, eyes open, mouths agape in horror. Even the blood was preserved by the cold onto their wounds in splotchy patterns. Which gave Mordr evidence that the attackers must have come just afore the more recent freeze. No more than three sennights ago.

“Was it Saxons?” someone asked.

“Those cowards would not travel this deep into our territory,” another soldier replied. “Mayhap Huns.”

“Nay! ’Twas Norsemen. Look at this sword. Pattern-welded in the Viking style,” Atzer pointed out.

“Hordssons!” several men concluded as one.

“Those slimy outlaws do not merit the name Viking. They have lurked about for years, waiting for a chance to attack,” Geirfinn said. “Damn them all to the fires of Nifhelm.”

Mordr heard these remarks through the roar that was growing in his ears. “Kata? Jomar?” he cried out even as he began to sprint toward the keep. The other men began rushing in all directions, swords aready, though, from the state of the frozen corpses, it appeared the invaders were gone, for days, if not weeks.

Despite his heavy armor, Mordr ran like the wind across the courtyard, up the steps, and through the open, double doors leading to his great hall, where the three hearth fires were cold, the logs long burned out. Tapestries had been ripped from the walls, benches and trestle tables wantonly hacked into kindling. Along the way, he jumped over the corpses of his housecarls and servants, male and female both. In the corridor betwixt the solar and the scullery, he found Dyna’s body, her gunna torn from neck to hem, her breasts bearing dark bruise marks, as did her widespread thighs. Mordr would warrant that many men had participated in the rape, if the blood stains on her thighs were any indication.

His wife’s body bore similar signs of mistreatment when he found it in a storage room where she must have hidden, or tried to hide.

And no sign of his precious children.

With foreboding, Mordr vaulted up the steep stairs to the upper level of his wooden keep where there were three sleeping chambers. In the first one, he found Jomar, who must have been hiding, face down, under the bed when he’d been found by the invaders. He’d been dragged out by the feet, and his skull cleaved almost clear through from the back by a broadsword. Mordr prayed gods that it had been a quick death.

He dropped to his knees and gathered his little boyling up into his arms, keening with grief. His heart felt shattered like glass, sharp slivers cutting into his soul. But he could not fall apart yet. First, he must find Kata. Laying Jomar carefully onto the bed, he spread his own fur cloak over the body, as if to warm him in death.

Kata’s nude, frozen corpse lay in the next chamber. No sword blow to her perfect body. Instead, from the quantity of blood pooled betwixt her thighs, he concluded with horror that she must have bled to death from her girl parts. From numerous swivings by beastly Hordsson males.

What kind of men killed women and children? What kind of men found pleasure in raping little girls? Why had they not taken women and children, or healthy males, as valuable slaves, a practice employed by even the most vile villains? The slave marts in Hedeby, and Birka, and Kaupang would welcomed them in a trice. Had that been the case, Mordr would have had a chance of recovering his children, by ransom or sword.

This was an act of violence, of evil, pure and simple. Aimed at him. Monetary gain had not been the goal, leastways not totally.

Mordr stood, arms raised to tear at his own hair. The roar of outrage, “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!” that came from him could be heard even outside the keep and beyond, into the village. Some say that was the day that Mordr the Brave became Mordr the Berserker.



Hell hath no fury like a Viking wronged...

After being restrained by his took Geirfinn, Atzer, and three other burly fellows to hold him down...and after being forced to drink horn after horn of uisge beatha, that potent, prized Scottish brew, Mordr fell into a deep, alehead sleep. When he awakened, the rage was still in him, but he restrained it inside himself in silent, cold fury toward the Hordssons. He began to plan.

No matter what he did—walk down the incline to check on the landed longships, eat a hunk of cold boar shank, bathe his filthy body, feel the warmth of the hearth fire—images of Jomar and Kata were ever with him. And those images were not of the laughing, happy children he had left behind at Stonegarth a year ago. Nay, all he could see was their bloody, defiled bodies and sad, frozen, tormented faces.

Their deaths, all the deaths at Stonegarth, must be avenged. Thus it was that, two days later, in his great hall, which had been cleared somewhat of the destruction, Mordr raised a hand high in the air and declared, “War on the Hordssons! To the death of every misbegotten cur bearing that name!”

A loud cheer went up from the men. There were no women or children present, of course.

Within a sennight, Mordr and his reluctant followers...reluctant only because winter was not the best time for warfare and his hirdsmen would have preferred a springtime march to battle...had razed the sorry keep and village of the Hordsson clan. Not a single Hordsson male over the age of ten survived the surprise assault. Some women, too. Mordr, even in the berserk madness that overtook him when fighting started, had no taste for killing females, but if they got in his way, they were fair targets, to his rattled mind. Never young children, though. Never!

For a year and more, he sought out Hordsson kin in other parts of the Norselands...Hordaland, Jutland, Vestfold, Halogaland. It did not matter if they had participated in the raid on Stonegarth, if they had Hordsson blood, Mordr decreed they must die. Then there was word of some Hordssons in the Irish lands; he traveled there and wreaked his still raging vengeance. Still others lived and died at Mordr’s hands in Northumbria where a Viking king ruled that portion of Britain. After that, he moved onto the Orkney Isles.

Hundreds of dead Hordssons lay in his wake of terror. Others shook in fright and changed their names to escape Mordr’s path of retaliation.

Though it had not been his aim, Mordr gained far fame for his berserk skill with a sword named Vengeance and a battleaxe named Fury. Every man with a speck of sense, even those not named Hordsson, avoided his path for fear of doing or saying something to set him off. ’Twas a well-known fact amongst fighting men that you never engaged a warrior, whether he was a berserker or not, who had no care whether he lived or died.

In truth, Mordr welcomed the road to Valhalla. Or did the Christians have the right of it? Followers of the One-God believed there was an afterlife where good deeds whilst living gained an entry into heaven. According to their Holy Book, after death a man could meet up with those who’d gone before him. If that was the case, Mordr was lost. He’d never been baptized, and too many misdeeds would bar him from the heavenly gates. Alas, he would never see Jomar and Kata again.

By then, many of his men wearied of the vendetta and went back to Stonegarth, with Mordr’s permission, led by Atzer. Mordr never returned to his home, though he had heard years later that the estate prospered as the men under Atzer took wives, had children, and drew villagers and cotters to newly built longhouses. Even his six brothers, who joined him at first from their estates scattered across the Norselands, gave up after awhile. It was not their fight.

“Mayhap you need to swive a lusty maid, or ten, to calm your mind,” his brother Ivak suggested before departing.

“Ivak, you think every problem in the world can be solved with your cock.”

“Can it not?” his halfbrained brother asked, and he was serious.

Vikar, the oldest of the Sigurdsson brood, gave his usual sage advice, sage in his own not-so-humble opinion. “Your pride has been assuaged. Accept the wergild offered by the King Hakon to halt your vendetta, and use it to start over again.”

“Dost think this is about pride? Dost think I care for bribe coins? Dost think I could truly start over?” Mordr stormed. “I can never replace my two children.”

That shut up Vikar...for awhile.

His brother Cnut mentioned the widow whose prosperous lands adjoined his in Vestfold.

“Would that by chance be Inga No Teeth?” Mordr asked with growing impatience.

“Well...” Cnut stammered, then said defensively, “You know what they say about all cats being the same in the dark.”

“Whoever said that did not know cats, or women,” Ivak interjected.

They all turned to stare at Ivak.

“I am just saying,” Ivak defended himself. “Besides, there are advantages to a toothless woman in the bed arts.”

They all gaped at Ivak with incredulity.

“I am just saying,” Ivak repeated, this time with a grin.

“I do not need another wife,” Mordr said with growing impatience.

“You could go exploring with those Vikings who seek new countries to settle beyond Iceland,” said Trond.

Mordr arched a brow at Trond, who was the laziest Norseman ever born. Trond would never go exploring himself because it would require too much energy. “The only way I am going to Iceland is if there is an Hordsson sitting on an iceberg thereabouts,” Mordr declared.

Sigurd the Healer made one of the most outrageous suggestions. “Methinks you should let me drill a hole in your head. Trepanning, it is called. Mayhap all your body’s bad humours would be released, and you would lose this madness.”

His other brothers were as stunned as Mordr.

“I like my madness, thank you very much. You come within an arm’s length of me with a drill, and you will find that instrument lodged in one of your body parts, the one where the sun does not shine, lest it come up from a privy hole.”

Harek, the most intelligent and most wealthy of all his brothers...he was a money lender and tax collector...said, “If you’re going to continue on this path of self-destruction, can I have Stonegarth?”

Mordr could not be angry with his brother. Harek was what he was, a greedy Viking bent on amassing enough treasure to establish his own kingdom.

“I’ve already given it to Atzer,” Mordr told him.

His brothers left him eventually, as did many more of his followers. In the end, Geirfinn was the only one of his original hersirs to stay. When Mordr could find no more Hordssons to kill, Mordr, Geirfinn, and a handful of loyal comrades-in-arms hired themselves out as mercenaries to kings and chieftains of many lands. For a while, they even became Jomsvikings, but Mordr chafed under the rigid rules of that monastic-like living.

Thus it was that five years after the invasion of Stonegarth and the death of his children, Mordr found himself in a battle against a band of Saxon villains. There were only twelve men with Mordr now, but thirteen powerful Norse warriors could handle twice, mayhap thrice, that many foemen. But not today. They were outnumbered five to one, and the gods were against them, pelting rain down on them in cold misery. If that were not bad enough, Thor raised his mighty hammer Mjollnir, causing lightning to flash, as if foretelling doom. Already vultures...ravens of death...circled overhead, just waiting to pounce on the human carrion.

The field became slippery with sword dew, as well as mud. The air rang with the clang of metal weapon against metal weapon, the death screams of the fallen, the grunts of soldiers brandishing heavy broadswords, and his own roars of berserkness.

Mordr cleared a path through the fray in front of him, trying to get to Geirfinn who was being attacked from both sides. When he was almost there, he saw his good friend go down from a lance thrown from behind by yet another Saxon villain. A death blow, it had to be.

With a bellow of outrage, Mordr tossed his shield and leather helmet to the ground. Storming forward he wielded his heavy broadsword in his right hand and his battleaxe in his left. One foeman got his head lopped off. Another Mordr speared through the heart with the sharp butt end of his battleaxe. Still another would ne’er swive any maids in the future for Mordr firmly planted his sword Vengeance in the soldier’s groin.

As he was pulling his sword back out of the groaning man’s body, Mordr made a huge mistake. Ne’er turn your back on the battlefield. Someone had come up behind him, quickly reaching around and garroting him from shoulder to shoulder. Blood gushed forth, and he felt a flush of heat race across the skin of his entire body, as if he had been scalded. His arms went numb, and his legs gave out, causing him to fall forward. Soon, the sounds of battle faded as he felt his blood soaking the ground beneath him. Someone rolled him over with a booted foot and laughed. “King Edgar will give me a great boon for having felled this vicious Viking.”

But then Mordr heard nothing as he sunk into a dark slumber, and it was not a peaceful sleep as he’d expected death would be. It sounded like beasts gnashing their teeth all around him, just waiting for the cue to devour his flesh and bones. Is this death then? Why am I not on the road to Asgard? Where are my Valkyries? Why am I not being welcomed into Odin’s great hall in Valhalla?

“Because thou art not in Valhalla, Viking,” a voice boomed above him.

Mordr hadn’t realized he’d spoken aloud. In truth, how could he speak with his neck nigh split through to his nape? He blinked his eyes open. He was still in the middle of the battlefield. Fighting was going on around him. Rain still came down in stinging sheets. Except for the circle surrounding him where a tall man stood over him. Instead of wearing a battle helmet and brynja of chain mesh, this lackwit wore a white robe, similar to those worn by men in eastern lands. It was tied at the waist with a golden rope, and his dark hair hung loose to his shoulder. Most amazing of all, a light emanated from the man, like a full-body halo. Mordr knew about halos, having once seen a Byzantine church mural depicting a saint, but that fellow’s halo had been surrounding his head only. This must be an important saint.

“Are you a saint?” Mordr asked, oddly unsurprised that he could speak.

“You could say that,” the man said, and from his back suddenly unfurled a massive set of pure white wings.

“Bloody hell! An angel?”

The man...rather, the angel...nodded. “I am St. Michael the Archangel, and you, Viking, are in big trouble.”

Mordr noticed that the angel did not say Viking in a complimentary way. “What do you have against Vikings?”

“You are a sorry lot of men. Vain. Prideful. Greedy. Vicious. Fornicators.”

“We are also brave in battle. Good providers for our families. Yea, I know what you are going to say. We provide by plundering, but that is not so bad when you consider we are doing a good deed by relieving your churchmen of the overabundance of wealth they garner for themselves. As for vanity, some could say that your God made Norsemen beautiful; therefore, ’tis not our fault that we are proud of ourselves.”

Michael’s eyes went wide before he shook his head as if Mordr were a hopeless idiot.

In fact, Michael said, “Idiot! Thou art in the greatest trouble of your life, and you dare to make excuses.”

“What would you have me do? In truth, I am not sorry to have my life end.”

Michael’s face softened for a moment. “Your children are safe and in a happy place.”

For the first time since he’d come across the ravaged bodies of Jomar and Kata, tears filled Mordr’s eyes and streamed down his face, mixing with the blood on his neck. A small sob slipped from his slit threat.

“Weep not for your children, but for yourself. You are a grave sinner, Mordr, as are your six brothers.”

Mordr stiffened, as much as a dead body could. “Are my brothers dead, too?”

“If they are not dead, they soon will be.”

“Why?” Mordr asked.

“You know why, sinner.”

Mordr did not need to think before nodding. “My berserkness. The killing. It started with the assault on Stonegarth, with the murder of my children. I had good cause to—“

“Foolish Viking! Vengeance is the Lord’s, not man’s,” the angel said in a steely voice. Then, “Do not try to excuse your actions. Even if you could be forgiven for killing those who killed your children, and I am not sure it ever could be, there have been so many other lives you’ve taken. Many of them innocent of any crime.”

“I understand why I must be punished, but you mentioned my brothers, as well. Why must you take all of us at one time?”

“Because you are grave sinners, each guilty in a most heinous way of the Seven Deadly sins,” Michael explained with growing impatience, “as are many of your Norse race. God in his anger has decided to use you seven as examples, and—”

“Lucky us!” Mordr mutter.

Michael cast a black look his way for the interruption.

No sense of humor.

Michael continued, “In truth, there will come a time in the future when the Viking race will no longer be. That is the will of the Lord.”

Mordr’s numb brain tried to comprehend what the angel told him. “How exactly are you...or rather, your God...going to use me and my brothers?”

“Ah. I thought you would never ask.” Michael smiled, and it was not a nice smile. “God has commissioned me to establish a legion of vangels to fight Satan’s Lucipires, demon vampires. And, at the same time, to save those humans fanged by the Lucipires with a sin taint afore they commit come grievous act, causing them to commit a grave sin.” Michael motioned with his head to a sight directly behind the circle of light that surrounded him.

Mordr recalled, when he’d first emerged from his death sleep, the sound of gnashing teeth, like leashed beasts. He saw now what had caused that noise. A band of grotesque beasts were trying—unsuccessfully, so far—to break into the halo barrier. They were huge animal-like humans, tall as upright black bears, with scaly skin oozing slime. Their eyes were red, and their open mouths showed elongated incisors, like wolves, but longer and sharper.

“Lucipires?” Mordr asked.

“Precisely. You do not want to be in their clutches, believe you me.”

Mordr believed. With typical Viking self-confidence, Mordr knew he could fight off three or four foemen, but these were not men, precisely, and they numbered in the dozens. He thought for a moment, then burst out with a chortle of laughter, which only caused more blood to spurt from his mouth. “You said you would turn me and my brothers into angels. Now there is a task! Turning Vikings into angels.”

“Tsk-tsk. You do not listen carefully. I did not say angels. I said vangels.”

“And they are?”

“Viking vampire angels.”


“For hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years, seven hundred years to begin with, you would serve the Lord as a vangel.”

“Seven hundred years?” Mordr exclaimed. “You mean, I would live for centuries.”

Michael nodded. “Mayhap even thousands.”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Of course. You can choose to be a vangel, or join the other side.”

“The other side? Oh. Oh, no!” Mordr realized that Michael meant he would be taken by those beasts, slobber dripping from their fangs, their eyes glowing like torch lights, as they tried to break the barrier to get at him. “I choose vangels. Definitely.”

“So be it!” Michael said and extended a hand over Mordr, causing him to be lifted to his feet.

Mordr put a hand to his neck and felt the skin intact. “Thank you.”

“Do not thank me yet, Viking.”

Mordr blinked several times. The golden halo was gone, as were the horrid beasts. In fact, the battlefield was now a clear field. No fighting soldiers. No dead bodies. There were so many questions riddling his mind, but he asked the most inane one. “Will I have wings, like yours?”

Michael hooted a short laugh. “Not yet. Maybe later. Probably never.”

That was clear as mud. “By the by, what is a vampire?”

Michael graced him with another of those smiles, which were not really smiles.

Immediately, Mordr felt a fierce pain in his mouth, as if his jaw were being broken and pierced with fiery tongs. When the pain went away, as suddenly as it had hit him, Mordr felt around his mouth with his tongue and realized that he now had a long...really long tooth...on either side of his front teeth on top. With horror, he said, “You made me into a wolf? I hate wolves. They are the most devious creatures, and they smell bad.”

Michael shook his head. “Not a wolf. A vampire.”

Then, more pain hit him. On his shoulder blades. He reached behind him, over his shoulders, and discovered two bumps there. He arched his brows at Michael. “Please do not tell me that you put teeth in my back.”

“Thick-headed dolts, that is what these Vikings are,” Michael muttered. Then, he told Mordr, “Do not be ridiculous. They are bumps. Where your wings might emerge some day.”

“There is hope for me then?”

“Viking, Viking, Viking! Didst not know, there is always hope? Are you ready to begin your penance?”

Penance? Ah. He means punishments. Still, Mordr nodded, hesitantly. What choice did he have, really?

The angel took him by the hand, and Mordr found himself rising above the ground, higher and higher, spinning, through the clouds, across the skies, over countries. Where he would land, Mordr had no idea.

One thought emerged through his battered brain. I have been given a second chance. Praise the gods! Nay, that is incorrect. Praise God!

Michael smiled, and this time it was a good smile.


Some inheritances are better than others...

Dr. Miranda Hart, psychologist, prided herself on always maintaining a dignified calm. She did a half-hour of yoga every morning, after all, and she gave lectures on stress management. Even so, she stared with stunned horror at the lawyer in front of her and practically screamed, “Noooooo!”

“I’m sorry, Ms. Hart.” Bradley Allison, elderly Cincinnati lawyer and longtime family retainer, clearly was not sorry. In fact, he recoiled, obviously disgusted with her reaction. “I thought you’d be pleased at this ’bequest.’ The highest compliment!”

“Are you crazy?” Miranda asked, immediately realizing that she was the one who sounded crazy. And crazy was not a word that a mental health professional should be using. She inhaled and exhaled several times, finding her center. “You have to understand, Mr. Allison. I’m thirty-four years old. I’ve never been married, by choice. It’s taken me eight years to pay off my college loans and establish a successful practice in Las Vegas. Not Cincinnati, by the way. I live in a luxury, high-rise apartment with two bedrooms, one of which has been converted into an office. I have no desire for children...or a dog.” She shivered with distaste.

“It was your cousin Cassandra’s wish that you adopt her five children. If you decline, there’s no option but to put them in foster care. Cassandra’s neighbor is unable to care for them for much longer. She has a big family of her own. I must warn you, if the Jessup children are adopted, I’m sure they will be separated.”

The oldest of Cassie’s children was eight-year-old Margaret, or Maggie. One set of twins was six-year-old Benjamin and Samuel, Ben and Sam. The other twins were three-year-old Linda and Larry. Mr. Allison was right. Miranda would bet her medical degree that there would be two separate adoptions for the twins, and Maggie might not be adopted at all because of her age. Miranda steeled herself not to care. “What about Roger’s family?” Roger Jessup, Cassie’s no-good husband, was in prison for assault and battery, and not for the first time, which had been news to Miranda when she’d arrived for Cassie’s funeral three days ago.

“No family,” Mr. Allison informed her. “Just you.” By his seventy-five-year-old nose raised northward, she could tell what he thought of her. She knew for sure when he added, “Perhaps they would be better off in foster care, after all.”

Miranda didn’t have a maternal bone in her body, but she didn’t like some old codger pointing out her flaws. Besides, she didn’t consider a lack of desire for procreation a flaw.

Despite his obvious misgivings, the lawyer tried a different tact. “If money is the issue, the family home could be sold.”

She waved that remark aside. “I own half the house, our grandparents’ to begin with, and Cassie and I both signed contracts years ago that, if one of us died first, the home belonged to the remaining cousin. Even if her husband were around, Roger has no claim on the house.”

“He might try,” Mr. Allison told her.

“Let him.” After what she’d recently learned about Roger, she would welcome the fight. “Cassie made a good living as a nurse, but, as you mentioned earlier, there’s only a few thousand in her bank account. Roger is welcome to that. Let’s hope that satisfies him.”

Mr. Allison nodded. “You do not need to tell me what can or cannot be done with the family home. I am very aware of the circumstances surrounding the house, young lady. Your grandfather was a good friend of mine. I drew up that contract.”

Boy! Talk about pole-up-the-ass irritiable! They have a syndrome name for it, in fact. Irritable bowel syndrome. Oh, God! I can’t believe I am making psychiatry jokes with myself. Must be the thought of sudden motherhood. To FIVE children! I need a Valium, or a fast train out of town.

“Will you or will you not be taking responsibility for the children, Ms. Hart? It’s Friday afternoon. If you’re going to reject your cousin’s wishes, I need to contact Social Services.” Bradley pursed his lips and twitched his nose as if there was a foul odor in the room.

Miranda wasn’t ready to make that decision, and the old fart’s pressuring her didn’t help at all. “Argh! What woman chooses to have five children today, anyhow?” Miranda wondered aloud, not really directing her thoughts at anyone, least of all the judgmental lawyer. “My cousin Cassie always was a ditz. Any stray, cat, bird, rabbit...found its way into her house. She and her family lived down the street from me in Cincinnati, and their home was like a zoo. Cassie’s mother, Aunt Mary, was just the same. Apparently, Cassie extended her bleeding heart to popping out children.”

Mr. Allison looked at her as if she were a species of smelly bug. “Be that as it may—“

“Who says ’Be that as it may?’” she inquired meanly.

Be that as it may, your cousin died. Her husband is in prison, and even if he weren’t, Cassandra did not want them to be in his custody. You might want to read this letter that Elizabeth left for you before making a final decision.”

“Why didn’t you tell me there was a letter?” she asked coldly.

The lawyer shrugged. “I mistakenly thought you would do the right thing, before reading the letter.”

She took the sealed envelope from him. “Do you know what’s in the letter?”

“I can guess.”

Oooh, she was developing a real dislike for the man. Turning away from the lawyer, she opened the envelope and unfolded the letter, which was dated two years ago.

Hey Mir:

If you’re reading this, I’m no longer around. Sorry we didn’t keep in touch more after college, but I always felt close to you when we did talk. I love you like a sister. Remember that time we did the blood oath thing up in Willy Markle’s tree house? “Sisters To The End!”

Well, cousin, I need your help now. I have cancer. Looks like I won’t make it past another year. I know, I know, I should have talked to you about this. But it’s hard to admit that your life has been a huge mistake. Except for the kids, of course.

Suffice it to say, my asshole husband Roger is an abuser. The beatings started after Maggie was born. The usual pattern, violence followed by profound apologies and promises to never do it again. As a nurse, I should have known better.

Miranda stopped reading and turned to the lawyer who was watching her from behind his antique lawyer’s desk, with his bony hands tented in front of his mouth. “The assault and battery that landed Roger in jail this last time...was it for beating Cassie?”

He nodded. “Broke an arm, cracked several ribs, and knocked out a tooth. He also hit Maggie so hard with a belt that it broke the skin on her back.” Mr. Allison glared at her, as if Miranda should have done something to stop the abuse. “Thankfully, we have a judge here in Ohio who has a low tolerance for wife abusers, and even less for men who hit children. He gave Roger Jessup the maximum of five years. With good behavior, Roger might be out in a year or so. You can see why the issue of the children needs to be settled before that.”

“No one ever told me,” she said defensively. “Cassie could have come to me at any time, and I would have helped.”

Mr. Allison arched his unruly white brows at her in silent recrimination. Like now? he seemed to be saying.

Miranda returned to the letter.

Even knowing that I have cancer, Roger’s rages haven’t let up. In fact, they seem to be getting worse. For the first time, last month, I called the police and had him put in jail. Aside from hitting me, he also lashed out at Maggie when she tried to intervene. He beat her with a belt. Can you imagine? The poor girl has scars. And he locked the twins...all four of a closet. I fear the direction his rages might take in my absence if he did this when I was around. That is a travesty I will never allow. I should have stopped this horrible pattern long ago, for my children’s sake, if not my own.

The cancer will probably get me before Roger is released from prison. And so, dear cousin, I am asking you to please, please take care of my precious children. I know what a huge favor I am asking of you. An imposition of the highest order to your single life style! Do it for love of me, please.

Your cousin,

Cassandra Hart Jessup

Single life style? Did Cassie even remotely think I was so selifish as to choose my “single life style,” whatever that is, over helping her? Miranda had tears in her eyes when she turned back to the lawyer. “Where do I sign?” she asked.

For the first time, the lawyer smiled at her. “You’ll never regret this decision, my dear.”

Miranda wasn’t so sure about that.


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