I am so honoured to share with you the first chapter from Alison Rhymes’ all-new age-gap romance—a modern-day retelling of Samson and Delilah, set in the same world as Brutal Play, and coming out next week.
It’s the black dove I see first, not the man attached to it. One feathered wing sprawls up a strong neck while its dark and hollow eye follows me through the room. I’m not moving a muscle as I cower in my corner, uncomfortable with all the people and the reason they are gathered.
Not like any I’ve witnessed before, and there have been many.
New Orleans has been my home for a few months now. Before that, it was Virginia City, Nevada. An oasis in the middle of the desert and as far away from Utah I could get at the time. Yet, the decadence of life—normal life—is something I’m still quite unused to.
Lorelai is more beautiful today than I’ve ever seen her. She’s always pretty, but today, she’s marrying the man that she loves, and it shows like sunshine on her skin. The man, Noah, loves her back in a way I never dreamed existed. It’s not the sort of love I grew up with. It’s not the sort of love I was told God blessed.
She’s not subservient to him. Instead of quieting when he’s around, she becomes more alive. Noah lets her move freely through the day. Lorelai has her own life and does what she wants. She works, she drives, she watches the most horrific movies, and dances when she thinks there is nobody watching.
Lorelai is free, and I’ve never been more envious. I’m ashamed of myself for that. The book of James says jealousy and ambition lead to every other sin, but it’s hard not to want what she has.
Carlotta, the woman I stayed with in Virginia City, told me it was like this outside of the ranch I grew up on. I saw evidence of that in her own life, but Carlotta doesn’t have a man in her house. Only women, or girls, seeking a safe space. She says she’s a survivor of abuse, too.
A word I still struggle with. Was I abused? It comes down to perspective, I guess. I was punished, yes. Carlotta and Lorelai say it was more than that. They say I didn’t deserve the things that happened to me. They say God didn’t want me punished like that.
I’m not so sure.
Noah doesn’t think God exists at all. But I don’t speak much to Noah. He’s rather frightening. Not because he’s mean; he’s kind and gentle with Olivia, Lorelai’s toddler sister, and me. He’s a presence though, large and powerful, and I don’t know how to be around such things yet. He gives me my space and I’m appreciative of that.
The day I turned eighteen, Lorelai was in Virginia City to pack me up and move me here. It’s what I wanted as soon as I took my first step off the ranch. But I wasn’t legal then and Nevada has laws that allowed me to stay there safely. Now, my family has no legal claim on me. Lorelai brought me to her and Noah’s home and gave me a small guest apartment. A place where I can learn my independence while still feeling secure.
They have given me a lot. What they can’t give me is my childhood back, or an instant knowledge of the world I now inhabit. Which is far, far different than all I’ve ever known.
Lorelai says to give everything time and respect the process. I’m trying, I really am. I’m scared of so much, though. Cars, noise, people.
Noah’s presence makes me uncomfortable, while other men terrify me.
Except him. The one with the onyx dove painted on his neck. Pope, they called him, but I wonder if that’s even his real name. He’s here to officiate the wedding. Lorelai told me Noah’s been friends with him for years and that the first time she met Pope, she was very taken aback by him. She’s come to like him but warns that he spews scripture at random times. Lorelai doesn’t like the scriptures. They remind her of her father and her childhood.
She grew up on the ranch, too. Only she escaped at the age of twelve. It took me five years longer. Lorelai’s mother, Martha, is to thank for that. She bundled me off the night before I was to marry my sixty-seven-year-old uncle. I’d have been his thirteenth wife, not including the three that had died over the years. David had not been granted a new wife in several years, so he was very excited to be given me.
My father was very happy to be promised one of David’s daughters in return.
I, however, was not happy. I don’t believe Jillian, my cousin, was thrilled at the prospect of betrothal to my father, either. Jillian is only eleven. As messed up as my family is, they don’t marry us off that early. Martha promised to try to get Jillian out before marriage as well. I pray she can deliver on that promise, and more.
Though, praying is beginning to mean something different to me now. I question my beliefs and my faith every day. Lorelai says that’s normal, too. So does the therapist I’ve been talking to. Dr. Price says it’s only natural to doubt the things that were forced onto me in my childhood, and that many adults question what they were taught when young.
I no longer have a family. My home is temporary. If I lose my faith, what am I left with?
The book of Matthews says, ‘And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.’ If I don’t keep faith, there is no hope that my prayers will be answered. There is so much I pray for, mostly for those I left behind. But some prayers are for me, too.
Martha stars in my prayers nightly. As do Lorelai and Noah, for all they’ve done for me. I know Noah was the one that paid my way to Nevada and donated generously to both the charity house in Utah that helped facilitate my escape and Carlotta’s home. I could never repay them for that. But there’s been more. They hired a tutor to work with me to get me through the general education development tests, which now allows me to get higher education. Noah’s paying for that, too. On top of free room and board for as long as I need.
Education at the ranch for girls was limited, at best. We were taught to read because they wanted us able to read scripture, rules, and recipes. I read well, even if my critical thinking and comprehension sometimes lacks. I learned rudimentary mathematics, but getting my GED proved that I have more skill there. I understand numbers. Math is black and white, true or false. Evaluation rather than judgment. I’m more confident when I don’t have to make calls based on acumen or gut reaction. Because I was never allowed to have my own thoughts about things.
Dr. Price encourages me to look at things from every angle now.
Right now, my vision is tunneled on the one they call Pope.
People mill around the backyard that’s been set up for the wedding, each taking their time to find their seats. They greet one another, chat, speak about the mature foliage that surrounds the space with a sweet jasmine scent. It’s a small affair. Lorelai says she doesn’t have many people to call her own. But her family is growing right along with the baby she carries in her belly. She includes me in that count. We are technically cousins, but I think she means it differently.
I take in each of the guests one by one. I’ve met all of Noah’s family—his father, brother, and mother, Grace. She’s been especially kind to me, wanting to be a mother figure for me as she’s been to Lorelai. They’re all here dressed just as impeccably as Noah always is.
A few of Noah’s co-workers are here. A couple of Lorelai’s, too.
I move closer to the couple I’ve yet to meet, though I know who they are. The McKennas. She’s Noah’s best friend; he’s something from Lorelai’s past that doesn’t get discussed but I know is important. They’re both quiet. I like the quiet since my head is loud enough all on its own.
Soft music starts as the harpist begins to play. A sign to take our seats if I had to guess by all the people beginning to move. The dove man moves down the aisle to stand at the end under a large magnolia tree that is alive with fresh blooms. Noah said it was still early in the season and it’s a sign that they opened, as if the flowers wanted to be present for their special day. It’s a pretty sentiment. One that made me smile, which isn’t something I do on wedding days. But this isn’t like the other weddings I’ve experienced.
Grace sends me a smile, an invitation to sit by them if I’d like. But I choose one of the chairs in the back, opposite the aisle to the quiet couple. Easy enough to escape it if I need, easy enough to hide behind other heads while I watch Pope.
He’s a tall man. Broad, too. I know he works in finance; Lorelai says he helps very wealthy people stay very wealthy people. Looking at him, you’d think he does much more dangerous things. We didn’t have men that look like him on the ranch. Tattoos were a sin, for one. The men mostly wore their hair shorn short, while Pope’s inky black locks fall below his chin. Though, today, they’re pulled back neatly at his nape. Probably to look more proper in his perfect black three-piece suit.
Even in the suit, nothing about him seems proper. He looks dangerous, dark, and diabolical. He looks like the devil himself.
Except the words that come out of his mouth are soft, tender, and hopeful. Words of love and support, rather than obedience and possession. Noah isn’t looking for ownership of Lorelai; he’s instead promising her a partnership.
By the end of the ceremony, I’m more confused and envious than I was at the start.
Many of the women cry, including the McKenna woman. She tries hard to hide it, but I see. I see a lot as a pale shadow hiding in the corners. I don’t think her tears are one thing or another, not just happy or only sad. But she’s smiling at her husband by the end, before they sprint out the same door I do. Them toward whatever their destination is, me to my favorite part of the Lorelai’s home. The library.
Shortly after I arrived here, I watched a movie with Oliva. Beauty and the Beast. A story of a monstrous-looking beast and a beautiful, young, empathetic woman. The beast gifted her a library, and I cried.
Where I come from, books aren’t given. There is only one book really, but multiple versions of it. And only one way for it to be interpreted. What the Cleric said the Bible meant, is what the Bible meant. We were not allowed to question.
I love books now. I read as many as I can, often finishing a book a day. Lorelai helps me pick out the titles, worried that I’ll throw myself into the deep end too quickly. She’s careful not to censor information from me but also not to overwhelm me with it.
Currently, I’m reading a young adult science fiction title. At times, it makes me feel childish. Not only because I’m reading books that were likely written for readers younger than me, but also because the characters are much more worldly than I am. They have an understanding of life that I don’t. I’d never been inside a grocery store until I lived in Nevada. The only time I’d ever been in a vehicle was one of the rare times I was transported from one end of the ranch to the other for an odd chore. I didn’t know televisions existed, or public transportation, or technology at all for the most part. We didn’t even have items like microwave ovens or laptop computers. The only women I ever saw wore their hair long past their waists and dresses past their wrists and ankles. It was a shock to get on a bus from Utah to Nevada with women and girls dressed in vibrant colors that showed an array of body parts.
It was a shock that the men in their lives let them.
The story I’m reading now has some of the same power dynamic I’m used to. A government in so much control over its people that every aspect of the citizens’ lives is determined by the powers that be. There is a familiarity there that’s almost comforting. Though I know it shouldn’t be.
My newfound freedom is a prize. One that some days feels like it will swallow me up, body and soul.
So entrenched into the fictional world I am that I don’t hear the doorknob turn. It’s the shaft of brighter light entering the room that has me peeling my eyes off the page and on to the man that has occupied my thoughts too often today.
Pope enters the room, cell phone to his ear and confidence in stride. He says something down the line about moving figures from one account to another.
“Do it immediately and email me the confirmation,” he says before ending the call and pocketing his phone.
He hasn’t noticed me yet; I’ve become somewhat adept at becoming part of the wallpaper. He also doesn’t leave. Instead, he slowly peruses the shelves as if looking for something.
“Are you lost?” Boldness I shouldn’t possess forces the words out, and I realize they’re the first ones I’ve uttered in what must be hours now. My voice is small and raspy, but loud enough for him to hear and turn on his well-polished heel. A graceful move on such a hard-looking figure.
“Are you trying to be found?” Pope answers in a deep voice after eyeing me for a moment without discernable emotion on his face.
“Do those who want to be found often hide behind closed doors?”
“In my experience, they are the ones that want to be found the most.”
He’s right in some regards, not so much in others. For there are many ways I’d love to be found, and many who I hope never to find me. While I mull over the words, I remember what Lorelai said about Pope and scripture, and I put it to the test.
“I was found by those who did not seek me.”
“Isaiah 65:1,” he says after making a low humming sound. “What do you believe that verse means?”
He gives me time to formulate an answer by casually making his way to the chair opposite me. He makes no sudden movements and breaks eye contact with me. Maybe so that I don’t feel like prey to a predator. Inexplicably, I don’t view him as such.
Perhaps that alone will be my downfall.
“God desired the people of Israel to find him, but many rebelled and worshiped false gods. Yet they claimed holiness while persecuting other nations. He was instead found by the Gentiles.”
“His desire superseded the human’s own desire.”
“Why of course?” he asks me thoughtfully.
“Because he is God. The Almighty,” I say without hesitation.
“And his desire is the only desire that matters? Does he not claim holiness while persecuting others?”
“Are you not a Christian?”
“Born and raised,” he says with a smile, holding his hands up as if in praise. “And then I began thinking for myself.”
I nearly gasp at his audacity and pierce him with a glare. Except, he’s not entirely wrong. At least about me. I wasn’t offered much opportunity to think for myself. Questioning what the Cleric or the elder men on the ranch said was prohibited entirely. Besides, anger, like wrath, is a sin and I must not succumb.
“That’s not something I’ve had much experience with.”
“Do not tamp down your rage with me, Lamb. If I say something that offends you, tell me and I’ll happily discuss it with you.” He crosses one leg over the other knee, his suit pants stretching to contain the muscled thigh sheathed inside as he folds his hands on his lap.
It’s not a threatening posture, but it makes me feel… something. Things I ought not, things God would not want me to feel.
“My name is Delilah. I’m not anyone’s sheep.” Not anymore.
“You are though. You’re still part of God’s flock.” He pauses, and I nod. “A deity that would have left you to be wedded against your will. Raped. Bred. Enslaved. Is that the god you pray to at night?”
“Yes. He gave us free will; some use it to sin.”
“They do,” he agrees. “And your god would let you, and those like you, suffer for the sins of others. For sins that he created. For sins, that if he is all good, all knowing, and all powerful, he could prevent.”
“Spoken like a true sinner.” I raise my chin and lower my book into my lap.
“Some sins are delicious and delightful, Delilah. I don’t murder, or rape, or abuse. Should I suffer eternal damnation because I don’t blindly follow an old book?”
“I’m certain you’ve had sinful thoughts, at the least.” I’m sure he has. Only I’m no longer certain of the punishments for such things.
“Of course I have. As I’m sure you have. But if we are damned because we have a thought in which we never act on, then can we really claim free will?”
Skipping over his point, I focus on his idea that I have sinned with thoughts alone.
“I have not.”
“What? Free will or sinful thoughts?”
About to blurt sinful thoughts, I pause. If I think about it, I’ve had neither. Not really. The one and only time I disobeyed what I was told to think or do was the time Martha found me sobbing in the cold storage basement beneath my father’s house. I was terrified that she’d tattle on me, but I could no longer contain my fear. Once David had been told of our betrothal, he began paying me more and more attention. I hated it; my skin crawled each time he looked my way. I took a chance that Martha may understand. That small act of defiant bravery was what saved me.
Had I stayed quiet and obedient like I’d done my whole life, I’d have been a child bride. And I’d likely be impregnated by now with my uncle’s child.
Weakness got me nowhere.
“Sinful thoughts,” I answer, because I do have free will now and I don’t plan on ever giving it back.
“Not even toward the men who pulled your strings?”
“No. I wished for a way out, but I never wished harm on anyone.”
He studies me as if committing me to memory. I take the opportunity to do the same. Taking this man in that by all measures should make me uneasy but doesn’t. It’s the longest conversation I’ve had with a man, and the first one where I feel like my words matter. Like I’m heard, even if not fully believed.
“Your wish for an escape could be construed as a sin though. Exodus says disobeying your parents is as good as disobeying your lord, does it not? Regardless, it would be all right had you wished for it.”
“Yes, Delilah. It is natural to wish harm to those who harm the helpless. It’s also okay to have other sinful thoughts.”
I can’t say for certain what Pope means, but my mind recalls the moment ago when he crossed his legs. The urge to drop my eyes back to his lap is strong, but I force them to stay on his face. So, I see it… the spark in his eyes, the twitch of his lips. I don’t know how he could know where my thoughts drifted, but I’m sure he does, and heat flushes my cheeks.
Growing up on a polygamist compound, sex was a big part of life. It was not discussed openly in regular conversation, of course. The youngest children lived blind to it all. But I remember my first day of ‘Family Instruction’ and each course after that.
Because I’ve only ever feared it, I’ve never experienced desire. There is something that stirs in me with Pope nearby. My stomach tightens, and my fingers tremble. Maybe that’s desire, maybe it’s something else I’ve never had the knowledge of.
“Is Pope the name you were given at birth?” I try to veer the conversation in another direction. Off me, preferably.
“You know they say never give a fairy your real name? It gives them power over you.”
“I’ve never heard that,” I say, embarrassment making me cast my head down. If not for watching movies with Olivia, I wouldn’t know what a fairy even is. “Besides, I’m not a fairy, and you already know my name. It seems only fair.”
Pope throws me a wide smile full of perfectly aligned white teeth as he stands from the chair and takes a step closer to me.
“Oh, my dear Delilah,” he says, reaching out to tip my chin up toward him. “I never said I play fair.”
A shiver runs down my spine, and Pope removes his fingers as if touching me caused him pain. Then, he stalks off toward the door, and I let my dark hair fall to curtain my face. I don’t want him to see how much I like watching him, how much I want to trace every inch of his painted skin with my eyes and hands.
“If you ever need to speak to someone regarding questions about your faith,” he says while standing in the open doorway, “I’ll make myself available. I was once on a similar path. It’s hard to travel it alone.”