The beautiful ones, p.1
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       The Beautiful Ones, p.1

           Lori Brighton
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The Beautiful Ones
The Beautiful Ones

  A Prequel

  By Lori Brighton

  Copyright 2014 Lori Brighton

  www.LoriBrighton.com

  All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademark status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.

  This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

  Cover art and design by Ronnell D. Porter

  Editing by Martha Trachtenberg

  Young Adult Books by Lori Brighton:

  The Chosen Ones Series:

  The Beautiful Ones: Prequel

  The Chosen Ones: Book 1, coming Spring 2014!

  The Mind Readers Series:

  The Mind Readers: Book 1 (Ebook version is free!)

  The Mind Thieves: Book 2

  The Mind Games: Book 3

  The Mind Keepers (Series-ending Novella)

  The Matchmaker Series:

  Make Me a Match: Book 1

  The Beautiful Ones

  A Prequel

  Lori Brighton

  Some say we’re special, and that’s why we’re kept in seclusion. Beyond those walls evil lurks and innocent prey would be lost in minutes. Gone. Destroyed. Forgotten.

  Others say the opposite: we’re locked away because there’s something wrong with us. If we roamed the outside world, we might taint the beautiful ones. A species so pure, that to merely be in their presence is a gift.

  As for my beliefs…I’m not sure.

  But I do know one thing: neither of those reasons explains why it is that they come for us only after we’ve passed the age of sixteen. Whether we want to go or not, we’re taken through those iron gates. Escorted away from the only home we’ve ever known, escorted to our destiny—whatever that destiny may be—never to be seen again.

  Chapter 1

  They were coming today. I knew this as a fact.

  Rain, snow, wind, sun, every fourth Sunday of the month they came for us. The beautiful ones, as they’d been dubbed long before I had been born, would sweep into our fenced home and pick two, sometimes three of us. No one knew whom they would choose, or why, but most prayed it would be them.

  I tucked my woolen skirts under my legs and drew my knees closer to my chest, biding my time. I wasn’t looking for them as I huddled in my nest of leaves and twigs. No, I was looking for something much, much more interesting. Desperate, I leaned against the iron fence, my fingers tightening around the cold, rusty bars.

  Just there beyond the hill, wavering in the crisp spring breeze, was a forest. Dark skeletal branches against a brilliant orange sky, the setting sun a fiery ball that balanced on the horizon like a mystical orb. Those trees would blossom soon. Even from far away I was sure I could see the buds. And then the scents would come, arriving on air that would change from crisp to warm, from musky to sweet. The intoxicating scent of spring. A time of hope, renewal, promise, but most of all…a time of mystery.

  I closed my eyes and attempted to conjure that scent.

  Barely there, hovering on the edges of my memory. I couldn’t stop thinking, couldn’t stop dreaming, and all because when I was ten years of age, on one particularly windy spring day, a few petals from a distant tree had floated over the wall. They were no larger than a fingernail, but I’d held those petals in my palm as if they were the greatest of treasures. And to me, they were. The velvety softness, that sweet scent, the most delicate pink in color.

  All too soon they had wilted, dried and turned brown and brittle. Alive and vibrant one moment, gone the next. Their death had stunned me in some way that I didn’t quite understand. It had happened years ago and I could barely remember how they felt, but I still yearned for their touch. If something so tiny and beautiful could be out there, what else lay beyond the hills? How desperately I wanted to know. It was the year I’d started thinking…wondering. The year everything had changed and I was no longer content.

  Shifting, I settled upon my knees and gazed out between the bars at the setting sun, barely aware of the damp earth soaking through my thick skirts, hoping that if I looked hard enough I might understand this world, this life. Could I walk into that sunset? Keep going until I found a place of warmth, green grasses and utter softness? A place where flowers did not wither and die but grew in abundance year after year?

  I leaned forward, resting my forehead on the cool bars. Dirt. I tired of the dirt that surrounded us. That dusted the air and coated my legs and arms and face. Out there, the world changed. The dirt gave way to brilliant green grass. Trees turned with the seasons. The world didn’t remain a constant as it did here.

  To the others those trees in the distance were a way to note the passing of time. To me they were magic. To the others the world out there was something to fear. To me it represented hope. And just beyond, barely visible, the rolling green hills would be dotted with yellow flowers in the summer. Always.

  How far did that land stretch? What was out there? There was something amazing. I didn’t know what, but I could feel it in my bones and someday I would uncover the truth.

  The thorny branches around me rattled in warning. I stiffened, turning toward the tunnel that snaked through the vines. Yes, someday I would uncover the truth, but apparently not today.

  “Jane!” Tom whispered. “Jane, where are you?”

  I relaxed, relieved I hadn’t been found. The bushes rattled once more. Tom cursed and I had to hide my grin. Tall and gangly, the older he got, the more difficult it was for him to fit into my tiny fort.

  “I’m here,” I whispered back.

  Two branches parted and a narrow, freckled face peeked down at me. His lips spread into a crooked smile that was more familiar than my own. “I knew you’d be hiding here.”

  “Not hiding, just…thinking.”

  “Dreaming.” He said the word as if it was a curse, and perhaps it was.

  Unable to stop myself, I turned and gazed through those bars once more. I’d been hiding here for years, spotting the place when I’d turned fourteen. A hole in the thorny vines where most wouldn’t dare enter, just as I’d hoped. Only rabbits and the occasional squirrel used my retreat as their own. And Tom. He knew my hiding place because Tom was the only person who knew my secrets, my desire to see the outside world, my desire to escape.

  Or at least he had been the only one, until about five months ago.

  “Find another book?”

  “Yeah.” I held up the leather-bound novel. “Jane Eyre.”

  I shivered as he read the title. Coincidence? Magic? I wasn’t sure.

  “A character with your name,” Tom murmured. “Almost as if whoever left the book left it purposefully for…”

  Me.

  He settled on the ground, his long legs tucked to his chest. So close that I could smell the earth upon his hands. He’d been working in the gardens. But it was his unease that I focused on, an unease that was almost tangi
ble. For months now, in this very spot, I would find a book. I’d always assumed they were some sort of mysterious accident. Certainly they weren’t here just for me.

  I’d saved a few of my favorites; the only ones I could fit into a wooden box Tom had made me two years ago. I didn’t dare keep the rest, but buried them when I finished reading. Not that we didn’t have books in our small world. We had books on agriculture, farming and science. But nothing like these.

  Beautiful, wonderful stories. I’d have the book finished by next week, sneaking off whenever I had a spare moment. And next Sunday, dutifully, another book would appear. Although I worried someone had found my secret hiding place, I didn’t question the magic, only accepted it gratefully…until now.

  “I don’t like it, Jane. It’s odd, don’t you think?” He picked up the novel and frowned at it like it was one of the snakes that occasionally slithered through the small nook. “It was one thing when I thought someone was merely leaving them behind. But your name? It’s not safe.” He tossed it down with a thud. “If the others find out—”

  “I’ll be okay. No one will find them.”

  He sighed and I knew this wasn’t the last of our conversation. “Is it good?”

  I picked up the book, holding it close to my chest. He was only asking to be polite. Tom hated to read. While I’d despaired when our schooling had ended a year ago, he had been only too happy to escape the stuffy building.

  “So wonderful.” Merely talking about the books produced a warmth in my chest that spread through my body and made me eager to read more, know more. In my books, at least for a short while, I could escape. “It’s about a woman who—”

  A bell rang, the metal sound clanging through the courtyard. Although we’d been expecting it, the clamor startled us all the same. Instantly I stiffened, dropping the novel. “They’re already here?”

  Tom grabbed the book, his movements jerky and frantic. “Yeah, coming. Sally was asking after you.” He tossed the book into the wooden box and shoved it under the brush, making sure it was well covered. “Hurry!”

  Without pause, he dove down the tunnel. We couldn’t be late. I started after his scuffed brown boots. As much as we wanted to be chosen, neither one of us would be so bold as to draw attention to ourselves and being late would draw attention.

  “Wait.” Tom stopped, glancing back at me, and forcing me to pause. Light pierced the branches, playing across his face.

  He looked nervous, which made me nervous. “What is it?”

  “Happy birthday.” He held out his hand.

  Nestled upon his rough palm was a rose carved from a small bit of wood and attached to a piece of twine. I was startled for a moment, having forgotten that it was indeed the day of my birth, seventeen years ago. Even more startled that he was giving me a gift.

  “It’s beautiful.” I was almost afraid to touch it. I’d never been given anything so pretty, so delicate.

  “Here.” He shoved the piece forward, his cheeks flushed, the color clashing with his red hair.

  Crying was uncommon amongst our kind, but for some reason the sudden sting of tears burned my eyes. Unable to resist, I threw my arms around his neck. In the small space he couldn’t pull back and he was forced to endure my embrace. His body was stiff at first, but after a moment or two, he relaxed enough to awkwardly pat my back. We weren’t supposed to touch and could be reprimanded for it, but at the moment I didn’t care. Besides, I’d done worse.

  It was an odd feeling having someone’s heart beat against mine. Odd but comforting. I released my hold, taking the rose necklace with me. I’d read about birthdays and gifts in a book a month ago. Unsure if they were real or a myth, I’d told Tom in order to get his opinion. I certainly hadn’t expected a present. I placed the twine over my head, the wooden flower falling against my chest.

  “Best tuck it under your collar.” He started to reach forward, blushed again and pulled back.

  He’d been acting different around me lately and I had a feeling I knew why. The question was, how did I feel about him?

  I tucked the necklace under my dress, the twine itchy, but the wood smooth and warm between my breasts. “Thank you, Tom.”

  “Sure.” He rubbed the top of his head, mussing his hair, obviously flustered. I had to bite back my grin. “We should get out there.”

  He didn’t wait but started toward that bit of light at the end of the tunnel and I could only watch him go. I cared about him, yes, but did I want to press my lips to his, to head to the couple’s cabin as so many ended up doing at our ages? Tom and I had always been friends, but now…now it was different. I pressed my hand to my chest, feeling the reassurance of the necklace. We received so few gifts and I was honest enough to admit I liked them. But did I truly like Tom as more than a mere friend?

  “Coming?” Tom called out over his shoulder.

  I leaned forward, pressing my palms into the damp earth, and followed him. As much as I wanted to understand my confusing emotions, it would have to wait. The beautiful ones had arrived.

  Tom lifted the branch that covered the entrance and we stumbled out into the brilliant sunlight. Momentarily blinded, I didn’t notice when the branch dropped, swiping across my arm and catching on my sleeve. A thorn pierced the cloth, scratching my forearm.

  “Ouch!” I cried out.

  Tom turned and with gentle hands, he untangled the thorny branch from my sleeve. “You all right?”

  He was always there for me; he was my best friend. This close, with his kind amber eyes staring down at me, I could almost imagine him lowering his head, his lips brushing mine… almost, but not quite. Disconcerted, I jerked my sleeve down, covering the bloody welt that had formed across my skin.

  In our world, there was no room for ridiculous thoughts. “Yes, fine. Hurry.”

  I pushed him forward and we darted from the small patch of maple trees and into the warmth of the sun. Edging around the children’s ward, we raced across the commons, an open patch of brown dirt that stood in the middle of our small town. The sun was the only thing brilliant here, in this world of relentless dirt. Even my dress and Tom’s shirt and trousers were a light brown in color, easier to hide the mud and dust stains. We rounded the women’s dormitory and came to a skidding halt.

  Already the others were lined up—a sea of brown dresses against a backdrop of beige one-story cottages. There was a dorm for the females, a dorm for the males and a dorm for the babies that needed constant attention. Toward the back of the forty-acre property there was a garden and pastures with cows and chickens. In all, there were fifty-two of us enclosed within these walls. Fifty-two familiar faces, although upon occasion the beautiful ones would bring someone new into our tight fold. Someone from another compound who would tell us stories that sounded eerily similar to our own.

  Our days were spent taking care of our small homeland: cleaning, cooking, working as a group to provide for the whole. It didn’t leave much time to study, learn and improve our knowledge. Our positions were chosen for us at birth. Tom worked in the gardens. I was forced to spend my days in the children’s dorm, taking care of the small ones.

  And there, at the back of the property, just barely visible, was a cottage where men and women could meet and mate. It was the only designated building where men and women were allowed to be intimate together once approved by the elders, the oldest few in our group. The species must survive, after all.

  Once a babe was born, he or she was taken to the nursery. We did not live with our birthing parents and I’d never thought much about it… until I’d read the books. Now, the stories were making me question everything, and as much as I craved them, at times I wished they’d never arrived.

  “Look normal,” Tom whispered. “And don’t talk too much”

  I frowned.

  “Your words are too big, too strange. It’s those damn books.”

  I flushed, realizing he was reprimanding me for my reading once more. What did he know an
yway? I couldn’t help it that the books arrived. And I couldn’t help reading them; they called to me. But Tom had always been content here, unlike me. Unable to stop myself, I glanced at that couple’s cottage once more.

  “You all right?” Tom asked.

  I tore my gaze from the cottage, embarrassed to be caught. “Yes, of course.”

  We could visit that building when we reached sixteen. Had Tom thought about taking me there? Visiting the couple’s cottage would change things and not only between me and Tom.

  Karen had gotten with child only last year after visiting the cottage. Bloated and uncomfortable, she’d almost died giving birth. Besides, I’d grown to like the children I watched. I couldn’t imagine going through childbirth, only to hand the babe over to another. That’s the way it was and always had been. But not in my books. No, in my books babies stayed with the women who gave birth to them. They coddled the children, loved them, adored them.

  We reached the others and my worries about the couple’s cottage fled.

  Sally grabbed my arm, jerking me to a stop. “Jane, Tom, do slow down! They’ll be here soon and we don’t want to cause a scene.”

  Of course not. Never cause a scene. I found a place in line, throwing her an apologetic smile. Although we were warned never to act out, I sometimes wondered what would happen if we did. Would they murder us on the spot? Merely shake their heads in disappointment? When I’d been thirteen I’d thought about kicking one of them in the shins just to see their response. Even now, the thought made me grin.

  Sally paced between the two rows, nervously flapping her hands like a bird looking for a scrap of food. “Straight line please, they’ll be here soon.”

  She wore the same brown dress we all wore, the same brown dress that blended into the dull dirt at our booted feet. We were a flock of boring sparrows. On her the dress looked even frumpier. She was bitter, angry that at twenty-two she still hadn’t been chosen. Angry that she was still here, looking after the children while others fled into another world, a hopefully better world. She wasn’t cruel, merely unhappy like so many others waiting to be picked. I wondered how I would feel if I was still here at her age.

  “Jane.” Sarah paused at my side, so thrilled, she practically bubbled over with excitement. “They’re coming!”

  With her wavy brown hair and soft brown eyes, she looked like me. Which shouldn’t have been surprising, considering she was my sister. Only two years younger, she’d been four when Mother had been chosen. She wasn’t my only blood sibling. There were two males across from us, twin boys aged fourteen. Justin, the younger, looked at me and grinned, while Kyle was gazing at the clouds in the sky, lost in some daydream. I smiled back. All of us had brown hair and brown eyes, just like Mom. Just like many of us here in the compound. I hadn’t a clue what our father looked like, although I suspected it was the same man who sired us all, as we looked so similar.

  Tom had moved into the male line and stood across from me. He’d changed so much in the past two years that at times I didn’t recognize him. That round face had turned lean and muscles had formed where they hadn’t been before, broadening his shoulders and making him look more like a man. He wrinkled his nose and stuck out his tongue, showing he was still that same old Tom I’d grown up with. A sharp burst of laughter slipped from my lips before I could stop the sound.

  “Shhh!” Sally hissed.

  Sarah straightened beside me. “I hope they pick me, I hope they pick me,” she whispered over and over under her breath.

  I rolled my eyes. Every Sunday when they appeared, Sarah repeated the same mantra, as if saying the words would help. I hoped they didn’t pick her for a variety of reasons. We weren’t close—no one was close in our world—but I still cared about her, and we really didn’t know what would become of us once we stepped outside that gate.

  But I had a feeling we had time. Mother hadn’t been chosen until she was almost twenty-three; incredibly old. So I wasn’t worried, even if after eighteen you became a spinster, and were treated like week-old bread. Sally was so old that most said she’d given up. But I saw that look that flashed across her hazel eyes.

  Hope.

  The same look everyone had, be it boy, girl, man or woman. Everyone wanted to be chosen. I’d even noticed the gleam of disappointment in Tom’s amber gaze last time they’d swept by him. Yes, everyone wanted to be chosen. Everyone but me.

  The commons area grew quiet and I knew by the shiver that swept over my skin they had arrived; a feeling I got every time they appeared. The line grew completely still, not a person dared to move. The wind shifted, a soft breeze sweeping from the sky and tugging locks of hair from my braid that tickled my face. That sweet scent…the same scent that always proceeded their arrival. Sweeter than the flowers on the breeze in summer. Unwillingly, I closed my eyes and breathed deeply.

  The bolt screeched back, and the gates were pushed wide. I caught only a brief glimpse of their fine carriage, a wagon and a handful of guards before they entered. Doctor Sam was first, which meant we would be getting medical shots. They never explained exactly what the shots were for, other than to say they would keep us from getting ill. Even though Doctor Sam was one of us, if much, much older, there was something about the way he avoided our gazes that made me uneasy around him.

  After Doctor Sam, who always shuffled hesitantly toward us, clutching his black medical bag like a protective blanket, came three beautiful ones. They swept inside as if they owned the place, everything and everyone inside of this fence. Their long dark cloaks swirled around their black boots, the determination upon their perfect faces intimidating. They didn’t speak with us, didn’t ask how we fared. In and out as soon as possible. There was no dithering about.

  Ares, the oldest, always entered first, Bacchus only a step behind him. They were the leaders and the two older men had been coming to our home for as long as I could remember. But behind them walked him.

  Thanatos, he was named.

  Nineteen or twenty years of age, perhaps a little older, always quiet, never smiling, his head bent down, features hidden by the hood of his cloak. He’d arrived about a year ago. Where he’d come from, we hadn’t the slightest. He rarely spoke a word, and as I’d never properly seen his face I wasn’t quite sure if I should be terrified of him or not.

  Their boots thudded upon the ground, the mud splattering with their movement. The two older men wore brilliant clothing underneath their dark cloaks, colors the likes of which we’d never owned. Red and yellows, blues and greens. Colors that looked even more brilliant against their pale skin. They were like the rainbow I’d noticed only twice in my life, both times just after a thunderstorm.

  My heart thumped madly, my nerves growing taut, and I had to resist the urge to press my hand to my chest. I didn’t want to be left behind, yet I didn’t exactly want them to pick me. I didn’t know what I wanted. All I knew was that I’d die, just die if I was twenty-three and still here…trapped behind this fence.

  The gates shut behind them with a thud that echoed across the countryside, stirring a flock of blackbirds from a nearby oak. Only three beautiful ones for the fifty-two of us, yet never had anyone tried to revolt. No, we wanted their praise. We wanted their approval because they were the ones who gave us shelter and food. They were the ones who could escort us out of this mundane life of beige. And I suppose we were all, just a little, afraid of being on our own.

  In the distance a bird tweeted, the only sound in our compound as the beautiful ones made their way slowly between the two rows. I barely paid attention to the two older men, but instead focused on Thanatos. A mere five steps away, his scent whispered toward me on the cool breeze… the earth and the rain combined, and underneath it all a scent that was purely his. He was tall, sinewy, strong, but didn’t wear the brilliant clothing of his friends. Dark shirt and trousers that matched the lock of hair that fell across the left side of his sharp cheekbone.

  As if he sensed the directio
n of my thoughts, Thanatos paused so close I could reach out and touch him if I was so bold. But I would never, ever be so bold.

  Why had he paused next to me? Why?

  The entire world disappeared as I waited. Slowly, he turned his head. It wasn’t his eyes or his mouth, or even something as mundane as his chin that first grabbed my attention. No, it was the thin scar that marked his pale skin from the corner of his left eye down across his cheek.

  Stunned, I could only stare. For a brief moment I wondered if the injury had hurt, but then I raised my attention to his eyes and all thoughts vanished. Not brown, or even pale green like the other beautiful ones, but almost blue. Ice-blue. A blue so pale it reminded me of the snow that had just melted only a month ago.

  I shuddered, a cold chill whispering through my body. My fingers curled into the rough material of my skirts as I resisted the urge to move. And suddenly I knew, for I could see the truth in his gaze…

  Me. He was going to pick me.

  He was going to pick me.

  Chapter 2

 
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