This is the first of my new Portal Worlds series. The book is still being written and edited, so what you read today is subject to change without notice in the published version.
On St. Antoni you got tough or you died. The only defense is a gun; your security is your ability to use it. This is the story of three sisters and the choices they make to survive on St. Antoni. Bethany marries a mercenary warrior to shield her family from a predatory neighbor. To protect her sister, Iris chooses between an arranged marriage with a beloved friend and an outlaw. Jeanne and the son of her greatest enemy defy both their families to find love.
Technology to find and open gateways to alternative worlds was found on earth in the late 21st century. Those expecting to get rich off the tremendous resources on these new worlds controlled Access to them. People talk though, and it wasn’t long before the new technology became common knowledge and unregulated Portals cropped up. Illegal settlers passed through Forbidden gates looking for new places to live and find adventure and liberty.
With only the technology they could carry or build from raw materials on St. Antoni they built a new way of life. To survive they must rely on themselves. The learned to master deadly plants and animals. On St. Antoni, Adventure was a one-way trip to a hardscrabble life and Freedom meant relying on yourself for food, a roof over your head and safety.
This is a work of fiction and any resemblance to any persons living or dead is unintentional and accidental. © Gail Daley 2017 All Rights reserved. Any duplication of this work electronically or printed, except for brief publicity quotes, is forbidden without the express written permission of the author. Cover Art © by Gail Daley’s Fine Art 2017
Serial Chapters are posted on Fridays. Check in next Friday for the next chapter of Warriors of St. Antoni
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GISELLE HAD decreed the wedding reception be held on the Saturday after the wedding and she and Iris had worked hard to make it a success.
When Saturday came, the ballroom in The Hotel was lit up by the new-finagled gas lighting system. The owner was proudest of the huge chandelier in the center of the ballroom. Giselle St. Vyr eyed the man engaged in the intricate task of lighting one hundred individual gas lamps and expressed the hope he would not blow the entire Hotel off its hinges. It was entirely safe Georges Coudoual, the owner, hastened to assure her, the very newest technology.
Giselle sniffed. “Candles,” she stated regally, “were good enough in my day.”
“Yes, but only look how beautiful everything looks,” exclaimed Bethany.
Giselle, Margo and the three girls were conducting a last-minute inspection before the reception.
“It looks wonderful Henri,” Giselle said. The long mirrors beside the French doors all along one side of the room let in more light. French doors on one wall opened into Madame Coudocal’s prized rose garden. It was a famous landmark in the city states. The hotel owner’s wife had developed it from plant cuttings her husband had paid to have smuggled through the Portal during his travels around the City States. The raised dais near the kitchen doors was waiting for the Hotel orchestra (a string band accompanied by a piano, but Georges insisted on calling it the orchestra since he had persuaded two flute players to move from Port Breakwater). Buffet tables were set up along the other wall and the polished wooden floor shone like glass.
“They look beautiful, don’t they,” Giselle said to Margo, looking fondly at her three granddaughters.
“Si, Senora,” Margo agreed, but her gaze lingered the longest on Iris. Tonight, the girl was an ice princess in pale blue silk, her hair piled high on her queenly head, the color of her gown making her blue eyes even more striking. The pair were still children when Iris had left with Giselle, but even then, Carlos had felt something special for her.
Bethany, as the bride, was naturally wearing her wedding dress. The dress was of the style popular when the Portal was first discovered, off the shoulder and cut low across the breast, with a huge hooped skirt made of yards and yards of tulle and lace. The buttery white color made the perfect foil for Bethany’s bright hair and creamy complexion. Giselle blinked away tears.
Her gaze was caught and held by her youngest granddaughter who was spinning around in the middle of the floor in exuberant good spirits. Jeanne looked beautiful tonight, she thought. Jeanne’s dress was a turquoise blue with wide skirts that clung lovingly to Jeanne’s tall, lush body. It brought out golden highlights in her honey colored hair, the vivid blue of her eyes and natural red of her lips. Despite her high spirits, something was bothering Jeanne, Giselle could see it in her eyes when the girl thought no one was looking. She made a mental note to coax the problem out later. Tonight was for Bethany to celebrate her wedding and Iris her engagement.
Georges came back to inform Giselle that the guests were arriving.
“Where is your husband?” Giselle asked Bethany.
“With Papa and Carlos, in the saloon. Where else?”
Giselle made a face and directed Georges to fetch their absent menfolk and gathered the women for the reception line. There had been trouble with Margo when she had discovered Bethany expected her to stand with the family. To her protests that the elite of River Crossing would be offended by her presence, Bethany had retorted this was her reception and she would be offended by Margo’s absence. The town, Bethany stated with some of Giselle’s regal arrogance, could like it or lump it
“You are my foster mother,” Bethany had concluded. “After Mama died, it was you who came and held me when I had nightmares and dried my tears and washed my face. I don’t give a—a damn what the rest of the town thinks! I want you there.”
Unable to protest in the face of this insistence, Margo now stood next to Giselle in one of Giselle’s gowns.
To prevent gatecrashers, Bethany’s announcement of the reception had invited all the inhabitants of the Crossing who lived on this side of the river.
“I know you won’t mind, Mrs. St. Vyr, but I brought a gate crasher to the party. You remember Jake Lancer, don’t you?”
“Indeed I do,” Giselle said smiling. “Jake and I are old friends. If I had known you were in town, Jake, I would have asked you myself.”
Johnson frowned, but quickly recovered. “Why you sly dog, Lancer. Why are you keeping such a pretty flirt in the shadows?”
“It sure was a surprise when the prettiest girl in the district marries a stranger a week after she met him,” Johnson declared. “I guess with your daddy not able to lead his men, he decided he needed a fighter to run his ranch. I’m sorry my boy didn’t win your heart, and I know he is too.”
Giselle intervened hastily when she saw Alec stiffen and Henry Miller move to the side for a better position when the fight started. Long experience with masculine responses to provocation of this kind told her a SCENE was about to occur.
“Oh, but this was not the first time Bethany and Alec have met!” she exclaimed. “Alec’s family is from Copper City where I used to live you know. His mother and I knew each other. She bought several necklaces from me.” Giselle told that whopping lie without a blink.
“Surely,” Bethany seconded her grandmother, opening her eyes very wide, “Mr. Lancer, you don’t think I would marry a man I had never met!” She brought the pointed heel of her dancing shoe down hard on McCaffey’s toe to prevent him denying the claim. A spasm of pain crossed his face.
“I can assure you Bethany and I were well acquainted before our marriage,” McCaffey’s voice was pleasant, and although he was speaking to Lancer, the warning was plainly meant for Johnson, “and I can and will deal with any insinuations that imply otherwise.”
Lancer was too canny a politician to be caught in the crossfire he could plainly see was building. He ignored most of the preceding conversation and blandly requested Giselle’s hand for the first dance.
Giselle, who could see from the expression on Emery Johnson’s face he was eager to make further inflammatory remarks, gladly assented and began stage-managing a retreat from the looming social disaster. She would not have a scene here.
“I will be delighted, Jim. Bethany, you and Alec must begin. If you will go to the center of the floor, Carlos will direct the musicians to begin and then he and Iris will join you. Michael, I know your legs are tiring. Do you sit down. Jeanne—”
“If you don’t mind ma’am,” Samuel Johnson intervened. “Miss Jeanne has already consented to give me the first dance.”
Giselle’s mobile brows rose. “Indeed. Very well, the music is starting.”
Three hours later Bethany slipped outside into the darkened rose garden and sat down on one of the stone benches to pull off her high-heeled shoe. Her feet hurt. She had danced almost nonstop since she and Alec had opened the dance. By a minor miracle she had so far avoided Emery Johnson. She avoided him not because she had a guilty conscience, but because like Giselle, she didn’t want to become involved in a nasty public scene. Bethany was under no illusions about why Emery Johnson had wanted to marry her. He would enjoy embarrassing her in public because she had dared to refuse his suit.
Ira Johnson wanted the Golden Tricorn and the Lucky Strike silver mine. As Michael St. Vyr’s eldest daughter, she would be assumed to be his heiress. Her husband would be able to ‘manage’ the ranch and mine for three helpless females. When she had refused him, Emery had seemed stunned. He was a handsome man. Bethany suspected he had expected her to be an easy conquest. She was glad that except for that scene at the door, Emery had seemed content to be avoided. She felt safe in coming out to the garden because she thought she had seen Emery going into the Hotel Saloon.
She had changed shoes so she could rub the other foot when Johnson loomed up out of the darkness.
“Hiding from your new husband?” Emery Johnson voice was slurred with drink, and he swayed a little on his feet.
Speak of the devil, Bethany thought resignedly, putting her shoe back on.
“My feet hurt,” she said. “Alec is bringing us some punch. I’ll just see what is keeping him.”
When she stood up and attempted to go around him, Johnson grabbed her arm and attempted to pull her to him. Bethany immediately slapped his face and kicked him in the shin with the toe of her pointed shoe.
No gentleman, Emery slapped her back with enough force to make her head spin. “You little bitch,” he sneered. “You belong to me and you might as well know it. I will teach you a lesson you won’t ever forget.”
Ears ringing, half blinded by tears, she stomped down hard with the heel of her shoe and missed his foot. There came the sound of a fist hitting flesh, and just as suddenly, she was free. She stumbled backwards and was caught and supported by a strong hand. “Easy,” Samuel Johnson said. “I’ve got you.”
He and Jeanne guided Bethany back to the bench and helped her sit down. Jeanne put her arm around her sister and looked up at the man who was watching the fight indecisively.
“You aren’t going to help him, are you?” Jeanne demanded scornfully. “He deserves what he’s getting!”
Bethany had been trying to shut her ears to the sounds coming from the other end of the garden, but now she turned her head. In the full moonlight, she could see the combat. Johnson was reeling from her husband’s blows. Alec systematically delivered punch after punch. Johnson fell in front of the bench where she and Jeanne were sitting and could not get up. Bethany looked at his ruined face in shock. Johnson’s nose was smashed and blood poured over the lower half of his face. His eyes were swollen as to be unrecognizable. Slowly she raised her eyes to her husband’s face, almost afraid of what she would see. To her relief, Alec was unmarked except for a swelling bruise on his cheek, and his expression was calm, almost dispassionate.
“Johnson, you want the same?” The hair rose instinctively on the back of Bethany’s neck at her husband’s soft voice, and she felt Jeanne make a protesting move beside her as both women realized he was addressing Samuel.
Samuel Johnson held up both hands. “Not me buddy. Emery deserved what he got. You just got here before I did.”
He turned to Bethany. “On behalf of my family, I apologize for my brother. I know Dad always led him to suppose—well, no matter. He still had no call to attack you. I guess I better take him upstairs.”
He bent and pulled his brother’s body over his shoulder, heading for the back stairs.
“Are you all right?” Jeanne asked her sister anxiously.
“You tell your grandmother, Bethany and I have gone to bed for the night. I’ll take care of her, thanks.”
Something in Alec’s voice prompted Jeanne to say defensively, “It wasn’t her fault you know. Samuel and I saw the whole thing. She came out here because her feet hurt and she tried to leave the minute he spoke to her.”
Her brother-in-law looked at her in exasperation. “I’m not going to hurt her for Christ’s sake!”
He extended his hand to Bethany. “C’mon honey, I guess we better take the back stairs too. Can you walk or do you want me to carry you?”
The minute he touched her, Bethany, dissolved into a quivering puddle of goo, shaking and clinging. Alec sighed, and picked her up.
“Er—do you need any help?” Jeanne inquired.
Alec turned at the foot of the stairs. “No thanks. I told you I could manage. You should stop off in the ladies’ powder room though before you go find Giselle. You could do with some repair work,” he added dryly.
Despite her small size, she was a hefty handful to carry upstairs and down the hall to their room. Once inside, Alec fell rather than sat on the bed. Bethany had not said a word since he had pulled Johnson off her.
“It’s all right,” he soothed, rubbing her back. “He’s gone. I took care of it, okay?”
“I’m sorry to be such a baby,” she gasped out. “I never saw men fight before—and…”
“No reason you should have.” He tilted up her chin and kissed the tip of nose. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and handed it to her. “Here, wipe or blow. I think we could both use a brandy.”
Obediently, she blew her nose and wiped her eyes. “I don’t like brandy,” she objected, but she took the glass he handed her with shaking hands.
Alec sat back down on the bed beside her, settling them both back comfortably against the carved headboard. “Don’t argue with me, woman. Drink it.”
Her teeth chattered against the glass and the liquor left a fiery trail down her throat, but she could feel her nerves settling as the brandy took its effect.
“Feel better?” he inquired.
When she nodded, he said, “Good. Why were you dumb enough to go off by yourself when you knew Johnson was around?”
Stealing a look up at his face, Bethany couldn’t for the life of her tell if he was angry. She sighed. It was Best to get over heavy ground as lightly as possible Gran always said.
“I thought he had left,” she said honestly. “It never occurred to me he would do anything physical. I mean, it’s not as if he wanted to marry me because he loves me. the Johnsons just want the ranch and the mine. I always thought any of us would do for that!”
She stopped because Alec suddenly squeezed her against his chest, hard. “Idiot woman,” he said, his voice muffled by her hair. “Johnson ´didn’t just want the ranch and the mine. I saw the way he looked at you tonight, even if you were too dumb to notice. He wanted you too.”
Bethany shook her head. “Not really. He doesn’t like being told no.”
Alec made a rude noise. “For a smart woman you aren’t great reading men. From now on, you don’t go off by yourself when Johnson is around, hear me?”
“I hear.” She touched the bruise on his cheekbone, which was now swelling nicely. “Does it hurt much?”
He smiled down at her. “Yeah, it hurts. Bastard got in a few good punches. Want to kiss it and make it better?”
She rose on her knees and brushed her mouth lightly across his face, afraid she would hurt him.
Alec turned his head and caught her mouth fiercely with his own. Her lips parted, heat finally creeping into her chilled body. When she felt his hand slip into the bodice of her dress to find her breast, she freed her mouth long enough to say, “Gran made this wedding dress and she wants it passed down. You must help me out of it.”
“Turn around,” he said, resigned. The small stroking movements of his fingers as he worked on the tiny hooks and eyes holding the gown together insensibly blended into a soothing sensual haze. When Alec had undone the last hook, and slid the dress off her shoulders, she leaned back against him, enjoying the trail of his mouth on her neck. His hands slid around to cup her breasts, his thumbs finding the hard peaks.
“Better stand up so I can get the rest of this off,” he said, and obediently she stood up so he could push the dress down over the hooped petticoats.
“Good Lord,” he exclaimed, when the hoops sprang back at him. “What on earth is that thing?”
Bethany laughed. “It’s called a hoop. Women used to wear them under fancy dress in Grans day. There’s a tie in the back.”
The hoops hit the floor with a metallic clang. Bethany turned and put her arms around his neck and kissed him. “Now that you’ve undressed me, why don’t you let me return the favor?” she whispered.
He pulled her to him, smothering her mouth in a long kiss. “That sounds like a wonderful idea,” he said hoarsely.
The next few hours were a revelation to Bethany. Alec let her undress him, responding to her touch with masculine groans of enjoyment. His response made her feel immensely powerful, all woman. His response fed hers so that when the climax finally came, she felt herself splintering in pleasure so immense it was almost pain.
She fell asleep almost at once, her cheek pillowed on his bare shoulder and her arm flung across his stomach.
Alec’s thoughts kept him awake. He felt good, he realized, his hand absently stroking her arm. Bethany did this to him, made him feel this way. And she belonged to him. He had taken a gamble on Michael St. Vyr’s offer and it had paid off. His arm tightened involuntarily around Bethany. Somewhere in his mind, he realized the ranch had become of secondary importance. Losing the ranch would hurt, but losing Bethany was unthinkable.