Release date March 28th
A gilded cage is still a cage.
From the womb, she was owned. Shula Kelley was signed away before her first breath, just like everyone else in secessionist Texas. She was called beautiful like it meant something important. Like it would get her a kind husband, or one less cruel. She hoped Jared Agnesson was kind.
And the devil you know is still the devil.
As punishment for his son's rebellion, the patriarch of the Agnesson clan claimed Shula for his own. And she saw only one way out. Shula had a plan, but she didn't realize it would require a savior.
Suffer not the sins of the father.
First acts of rebellion open doors that are best left closed. Until Jared walked through it. Her savior. But how can she truly love when she only knows obedience?
“To die, to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream–ay, there’s the rub,…”
–William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Human ash was ridiculously difficult to work with when wet, but it was done. She had planned on nice clean lines gently smudged against her dark brown eyes, but the ash proved far too unwieldy. After watching it flake off when it dried, Shula added a drop of oil to a good sprinkling of ash to the palm of her hand. It still didn't apply evenly, and she looked more like a raccoon than a bride, but her mother would share her big day now and she could take no other method to avoid it.
Though Shula would give her a 'A' for effort.
She tipped the urn into her great-grandfather's rusted cigarette case, messily covering the razor blade taped inside it. She filled it, spilling quite a lot onto the floor, but she would have to get the broom out anyway. She pressed the case shut gently, shook the excess ash into the sink, and put it into her purse on the counter. She washed her hands and wiped down the sink, smearing the ash into pristine caulk, infecting it like mold. She smiled grimly.
Shula picked up her father's tiny grooming scissors and went to work on her hair quickly. She started at the crown, cutting close to the scalp, but uneven in its swiftness. She had a massive amount of thick curls, but they fell quickly and silently, offering no protest.
Once done, the scissors were nearly worthless, but she put them away. She deliberately left several knotted strands stuck, so that her father would see them later and be reminded of this day.
She looked around the bathroom, avoiding her reflection deliberately, picking out things that she hated and she tried to take comfort that she would never see them again. Her stomach lurched in grief, so she finally looked at the woman in the mirror, this stranger no longer, summoning strength with a glance. She looked like a horror and she felt an acute anticipation for her unveiling within the hour.
She'd been told since she was old enough to understand that she was beautiful. Like it meant something important. Like it would give her a choice between a husband with a kind soul or a corrupt one.
For the lucky, beauty got you a larger house to clean and maybe a house full of beautiful children. For her, beauty would be an end. The end.
She was newly eighteen, but she still felt so much like a child. Far too young for what was expected of her. Her naked body, covered in constellations of freckles, goose fleshed and covered in the dark remnants of her copious locks, memories of braids and pigtails and innocence. It felt wrong to curl and primp for a man older than her own father, no matter how many might have coveted the position. Though decorating herself for the day's final end did seem to amuse her, she wanted his disappointment of her to be profound, not just in their marriage bed, but as soon as he lifted her veil. So, she had brought out the scissors. She wasn't a girl any longer, and her hair had no purpose as it had served her beauty with ultimate betrayal.
She couldn't abide traitors.
She watched detached, as she brushed the thick dead clumps that covered her breasts and skimmed her belly, and clung to the hair on her pubis. She brushed it away absently at first, but she found her senses heightened by her nudity and the stimulation of her falling hair. She slid her fingers against her clitoris, smiling at the rush of arousal, and realized that she would miss this. Sexual thoughts were taboo, and unless you had the express consent of your husband, self-gratification was punishable by a life married to Christ, sequestered with the rest of the girls who would never be accused of keeping their hands to themselves.
Naturally, Shula was quite adept with masturbation once she'd discovered her clitoris, and once she'd heard about the sacrament of virginity, she'd tried out every vegetable from the garden. She'd tried candlesticks, her fingers, and even the hilt of a very large kitchen knife, though the horsewhip was her favorite.
She would miss it all. James Agnesson ruined everything.
Earlier in the week, when James had come calling, and he had sampled the food she had prepared for him, she would have poisoned him had she known. As it was, her hatred grew for him, rather than their situation, and her plans for their wedding and honeymoon became quite morbid. She found that her future groom's frustration wouldn't be nearly enough, nor her lack of hymen. He would not have the gift of her purity, nor the proof of it, nor would any man now, because even imagining his realization as he's rutting inside her didn't bring her pleasure as it had when she imagined it was his son, Jared. She didn't want to just ruin his day. She wanted to ruin him. For Jared, his confusion would have been satisfactory enough, but for his father…death was preferable than having him touch her.
The day had come, and a more wretched ending was born. She would not have the honor of seeing his face when he gazed upon her in their marriage bed, but like all charity, it's best not to be selfish in your giving. She would strive for humbleness, because martyrdom wasn't effective without a captive audience.
Her mother had probably taught her a great many things, the domesticities of their gender notwithstanding, and she'd taken almost all of it for granted. The one thing that she'd always remember though, was the most profane: Sometimes suicide and the Seventh Circle of Hell were a far desired fate if the alternative was life and all the Circles combined.
Today was that day. Her wedding day. Tonight, she would excuse herself early, and he would surely allow it. Women, for she was a woman now, needed time to prepare for bed. To ready themselves for their husbands and their pleasure.
She would pull down the coverlet, open the cigarette case, and fashion a distorted crucifix with her mother's ashes and the water from the traditional roses she was sure to be beside the bed. She would lie down in the center of bed, pull the razor from the cigarette case and slit both wrists quickly and efficiently. She would spread her arms wide.
It was pure drama, but if one gets to choose their passing, make it memorable.
Make a fucking point.
Her only regret was that she was sure her father wouldn't see. James was sure to cover it up somehow, the drama of it, even though he'd have no scruples relaying the slit wrists.
Her father would probably never see her bled out on her mother's ashes and she hated that. She hated her father even more than James Agnesson. She knew it was wrong, but she was prepared for Hell, so all unspoken sins were at the forefront of her mind.
As it was, since she was choosing, she'd rather have the chance of spending an eternity in Hell with her mother than with the likes of James, no matter how horrible.
She wasn't sure she believed in Hell of the after death variety anyway, but her mother spared two years for her. Shula would never forget the fight, nor the sound of the gun. Worse yet, she would never forget the sound of her mother hitting the floor, nor of her father's silence.
And his continued silence.
She hated him.
He was going to give her away to that monster and her mother's death had been in vain. She would have certainly stayed had she imagined this outcome.
Shula had been betrothed to Jared Agnesson since the day she was born and they were to be wed the day after she turned sixteen. She wasn't much happy about it, but all the girls got married at that age, and Jared seemed nice enough. He was painfully shy, quiet, and probably handsome, if one considered a boy handsome. He'd not quite caught up with his brothers in stature and Shula wasn't afraid of him like she was of other newly-made men.
James had told her that Jared had disappeared into the woods after he took the death of Anna, James' late wife, quite hard, and he had shown no signs of returning and fulfilling his contract, so he had deigned to fulfill it himself.
She wanted to be angry at Jared, but found that she didn't care. He hadn't owed her a thing. She could not fault him for escaping when he could. At least he had that option.
Her mother had not wanted it. Shula didn't quite understand as it was normal for girls to marry, and she couldn't imagine Jared had offended her mother since he was so silent and awkwardly polite.
The morning of her mother's death, every muttered curse spoke of Jared's father, and she didn't know what that had to do with Jared himself. Shula belatedly realized that her mother hadn't wanted her involved with the Agnesson family at all, but she was never brave enough to ask her father why. They'd barely spoken these last two years, and she didn't know what her mother saw in him, unless she didn't have a choice.
Of course she didn't have a choice.
But, it must have been something terrible for her to take her own life to prevent a marriage to a harmless boy.
She took comfort that she wouldn't bleed out on her own bed, her grandmother's old bed, because she would be moving into James Agnesson's house, but thankfully she wouldn't be required to be mother to men who were older than her. Surely, he could see the wrongness of it.
A wrongness she wouldn't tolerate. Shula was pleased she could still feel relief.
Her betrothal to Jared had still been under contract, but the death of a mother, by Law, would postpone any such commitments until she reached majority. Her contract was amended, and signed by both her father and James one day before her eighteenth birthday, replacing the son with the father. If she would have known at dinner before, none would have left the table alive.
That was three days ago, and Shula can't imagine why it isn't a scandal. She was appalled when he had married Anna, as they had been close in age and grew up in church together. Shula would be his third. The mother of the five boys: Jacob, Jonah, Josiah, Jared, and Jude, had died during childbirth, and James Agnesson had married Anna, newly sixteen, and she died last year of an apparent suicide. Anna had been the same age as Jude.
The rumor was that Jude had found her in her bed, and that was all Shula had heard about it.
Shula could guess, but that made her feel smug, and she wondered if that even scratched the surface of what her mother might've known. Her mother knew something, and her father knew it too, but curious as she was, she'd rather die than know, unless she could find out today.
Two suicides in two years, especially after his last wife's sudden death, should bring about a much more intense scrutiny. There was a reason her mother hadn't wanted her in his house, and it had been worth her life. Shula had not forgotten that.
She was relieved in a way. She was lonely, but trusted no one, and it was a scary existence.
She watched herself in the mirror as she touched herself expertly. She always had philosophical thoughts on sin. She liked to list them in her head from ones she deemed not so bad to the worst ones, like cruelty and complacency. She didn't understand how this God-given pleasure was only a means to tempt and trap.
As a woman, she wasn't allowed to read The Bible. Only the men were allowed, and it was up to them to explain their sinful natures to them. Sometimes Shula would sneak a few paragraphs when she cleaned her father's room, if he had it out of the locked trunk. It was paragraphs and paragraphs of confusion, and she would turn the pages quickly, looking for the list of sins that would seem an obvious addition. She never found them.
So, she compiled them in her head. Sins, taxonomy of.
She would write them down, but she hoped that her corpse would display his deepest sins and eat at James Agnesson the way God's disappointment was supposed to.
After Shula brought herself off, she took a few deep breaths and grabbed the broom behind the door. She swept up the remnants of her youth and the death of it, and when she was finished, she looked toward the dress hanging on the hook on the door.
Her mother's beautiful, meaningless frock, yellowed with age, and smelling of decay and mothballs. The lace was matted with cobwebs and even blotting it with a washcloth thickened the strands.
She fished out her father's scissors and snipped the lace from the bodice, eyeing the netting of the veil briefly, knowing it would cover her thoroughly, until it was lifted.
The lace lifted easily and she dropped it carelessly into the trash. She pulled the dress over her head, slipping it onto her naked body, mindful of her mother's ashes. It was a little too snug, but she knew it would give just a little as the day went on.
She stepped up to the mirror and she still looked terribly young. Even with her neutered hair, and her darkened eyes, and low bodice, she still looked much too young.
It was a tragedy.
The only thing that kept her tears at bay was that this was what James Agnesson would see when he lifted her veil.
He would see who he'd chosen to be his wife.
Shula affixed the veil to her head and covered her face and chest. She grabbed her purse and suitcase, and walked it to the front door where her father was waiting. He opened the door without a word, and led them to the car. The veil was sheer enough for her to see images, and the haze of black from the ashes made the sky look like rain.
Jared Agnesson sat heavily on the front steps of his tiny cabin. He was going to need to build a fence and get a dog. Maybe several of the doberman variety.
He held up the cream-colored envelope that he had found under his feet when he stepped out the door that morning.
He knew what was inside. His father had been threatening it before Anna's body had been cold to keep Jared under control. His father wanted him to take over the farm, but Jared had a knack for computers. So, he had sought work in the city, independent of his father, but every job or apprenticeship ended up dead.
Luckily, Jared had the foresight to move his trust fund when he turned eighteen to an international bank in the city, one who hadn't heard of James Agnesson, or if they had, they hadn't cared. Jared would have enough money indefinitely if he wasn't foolish. And his current project was lucrative, but he had to be doubly careful.
He inherited a piece of land adjacent to his father's ranch with the bones of a hunting lodge hidden by the trees. His father spent equal time at the ranch and in the city, but Jared knew Agnes Oaks inside out, so he felt he could hide more effectively in plain sight rather than a city where he would be constantly looking over his shoulder. He'd underestimated his father. The only way to be truly free of him was death, or to find a way to leave Texas, but Texas only granted visas for work. They were temporary, not for families, and never for women.
If you were born here, you died here, and the fate of the women depended on the kindness of their husbands.
Jared wanted to be kind. It took him several months, but he'd built paradise, and he'd wondered if his future bride would like it. But, he didn't allow himself to wonder for long. He enjoyed deluding himself on occasion. It was safe out in the woods.
As much as he'd wanted Shula Kelley, as much as he'd always known that she was intended for him, he knew that his father would eventually take her from him. The same way he took Anna, and she had only been his friend from church. His father hated their closeness, never trusted it, and he'd left her because his father had become increasingly nasty towards her.
A week later, he'd found out that she'd died. Jared had to think.
His reach was far and wide, and Jared had to be smart. But, now it seemed too late.
His brothers were too complacent and stayed away, moving their families to the city to represent various family businesses. Their father's fingers were dipped into trade all over the state of Texas, from banking and real estate, to agriculture and energy. Education and evangelism. Jacob and Jonah managed the bank branches from the Austin-San Antonio Metroplex, to one hundred miles east of Agnes Oaks, with smaller branches all over the state, independently managed. Josiah was in real estate, and was rather successful at it.
They had already moved out when Anna came to live with them. Only Jude had remained. He was the one who had found Anna, and avoided everyone anymore. Jared was fairly sure that Jude will be the one running the farm. So long as his father didn't find out–
His father had eyes and ears everywhere, was highly respected, but there was a quiet cruelty in his every step that made people cautious around him. He believed it was power, and maybe it was, but Jared had no need for that sort of sway.
He wanted better. He wanted a life without fear for the people around him.
So, he would go. He would dress in his Sunday's best, and try to meet Shula's eyes, and hope that he could relay in that glance that he would do anything in his power to save her from him.
She would have to be patient and he would have to be strong.
Arden Aoide lives in San Antonio, Texas, with her husband, two daughters, and three cats. Turn ons include men who cry during sex, long walks on the beach, and talking about herself in the third person. Turn offs include mean people and trying to figure out how to write an interesting author bio.
She doesn't write about the typical men you normally read about in erotic romance novels. She likes her men brainy and just this side of manic.
She's an introvert, she loves coffee, Internet, British television, and pot stickers. And pie. She loves pie.