“It’s the day off,” Iris seems excited.
I am still blinking at her before I glance back to Rage that does not seem happy. Iris told me we are to spend the day together “with the girls” and I am not sure how to react to that.
I am not in the mood for anything to be honest for these past days. After that perfect day in San Francisco with Wood. And that abrupt way he dismissed me after that. He hasn’t called, he hasn’t come by and I am sure we will never have that day on the beach.
“OK, I need to come clean on something,” Iris hesitates. “The Riders own several enterprises.”
“One of them is an escort business,” she says softly.
The blood is drained from my face. Escort! What a fancy word for what truly lies underneath. I am pretty sure Freddie would call the torturous warehouse an escort too. Rage shifts uneasily on his chair and we exchange one glance. I don’t know if he has told Iris about me but the guilty way he looks at me tells me he hasn’t.
“It is a nice place,” Iris tries and I chuckle cruelly.
I get up and do the dishes to keep Iris from seeing the panic on my face. All men are the same and though Iris seems to be revered by her husband, I haven’t met the others to know what they really are. No, not Wood, I decide but even that is not a strong voice in my head.
“Tamie, I promise you, it is not what it sounds like. The girls are happy there and...”
“Happy?” I drop a glass I was holding and it shutters in a million pieces. “Happy to be sold off like meat? Happy to have random strangers in them? How can they be happy?” I am shrilling by the end of it.
Rage growls, hits his head and rushes out of the kitchen. This is too much for him. And it sure is too much for me. I stare into Iris’s eyes for a while before I lean to clean up the mess I created.
“Tamie, I don’t know what happened to you,” she almost whispers and I brace, “and I am here whenever you are ready to talk about it. But trust me when I tell you that none of the Valkyries would set foot in there if it was not safe. Especially me.”
That last sentence makes me freeze. I dread to think what has happened to my little flower when I was gone, while she thought I was dead. What did that sick man do to her? The scars on her back...
“Please, come with me. The rest of the Valkyries are dying to meet you,” Iris pleads.
Guilt grabs me and I shut my eyes firmly. Iris has seen me the days I am staying with them. I may act normal but I am withdrawn, closed up. I am not really back, not to her. Only time I felt alive was with Wood and he is not around anymore.
“I will come,” I say unable to hear her so much in pain.
“That is so great! And it is a beautiful day to spend out on the pool!”
“Oh, Tamie,” Iris smiles. “You have no idea!”
And Iris was right. When we reach the hacienda-styled mansion, I admit it was not what I expected. Though I have been in nice places that reek of darkness before, this one seems so fresh and bright that it makes me want to check what’s inside.
Iris walks up to the door and rings the bell and after a while a young man opens cautiously. I stiffen when I see the gun in his hand but Iris just smiles at him and he opens the door widely.
“Morning, Iris. You are the last one in. How come?” The boy asks.
“Have you met my sister? This is Tamie. Tamie, this is Jab and he will be our security for the day.”
The boy looks at me with a wide smile and tips his head in a salute. He holsters the gun and closes the door behind us when we enter. I look around suspiciously. Has my sister been brainwashed into thinking that she is not in prison? Rage doesn’t easily let her out of his sight, he works for the Rider garage, even on the day off, there is a guard.
But perhaps I am the one holding back. Rage is protective of her out of sheer love, at dinner Iris talks excitedly about her work every day and she doesn’t seem afraid of this Jab person.
I am still lost in my thoughts when Iris guides through some French door and out on the garden. And my jaw drops.
The place is simply amazing, with tall trees and a tended garden, soft grass underneath and in the middle a wide pool with turquoise tiles. There is a bar on one side with a buffet with fruits and food and soft music blasts in the area. There are long chairs and umbrellas and almost all of them are occupied by women of all sizes and colors, all wearing swimsuits. And as Iris promised, they all seem happy.
“There she is!”
I turn and I see a tall woman with dark hair and a striking pair of green eyes come up to my sister and give her a warm hug. A lean, built woman with fleshy lips follows. Behind her, there is a woman with blonde hair and blue eyes that looks at me and gets up from her long chair to walk straight to me.
“You must be Tamie,” she says and her eyes take me all in.
“I... I am...”
“I am Magda,” she extends her hand and I take it.
“Hi,” the tall woman stands close. “I am thrilled to have you here, Tamie. My name is Ava and this is Lysa.”
The last one to approach is a willowy woman with a slight bump over her swimsuit. She gives me a warm smile and I take her hand.
“I am Chiara. It is so great to finally meet you.”
“These are my friends,” Iris says and gives me a reassuring smile. “All Valkyries.”
I look at them once more, trying to read them. True, I am better at reading men but the vibe I get from them is comforting. Each has a different look in their eyes but all seem content at least. They all have a tattoo on them, a tattoo of a Valkyrie somewhere on their body, unique and distinct. And they are all genuinely happy to meet me so I relax.
“Oh, yes! All Valkyries in this side of the pool! I am Bjorn’s,” Ava says and I am reminded of the gigantic man that works with my sister, “which I believe you have met. You’ll meet the others in due time. We are a big family.”
“But you have met Wood,” Magda smiles at me.
A sudden fear grabs me. He hasn’t mentioned anything but he said he doesn’t have a Valkyrie. Is that woman his? Is that why he scorned me so easily? And that kiss? That night we spend?
“And no,” Magda says. “I am not his Valkyrie. Runner is my man.”
I close my eyes and sigh in relief openly only to see all the women stare at me with interest when I open my eyes again. Even my sister. I did sigh too loudly on that, didn’t I?
“In fact,” Ava throws a hand over my shoulder, “Wood doesn’t have a Valkyrie.”
“Which is a shame if you ask me,” Lysa adds.
“He is a good man,” Magda seconds.
“And strikingly handsome. And knows how to cook,” Chiara nails the final nail on my coffin.
I smile at them all awkwardly before I excuse myself to the bar to grab a juice cause it is seriously getting hot in here. While I walk away, I hear the commotion behind me and I know I am the topic of discussion. And I just got here.
I am pretty sure that my little crush on Wood is showing and I am ashamed. Do I have a crush on Wood? Crush? What am I? 15? Though it’s pretty accurate. I act like a fool around him, I blush all the time, I think about him every waking moment, I find him hot and I even dreamt about him.
But he doesn’t want me. I mean, the first thing I did when we met is hit him hard in the balls. He may still remember that. And then I came onto him, stark naked in the motel room. I shut my eyes in embarrassment as I think about it.
When I get back, the Valkyries have shifted to other topics of discussion - or at least pretend they do - and they make me go change into a swimsuit only to shower me with compliments once I am back with a purple bikini with chevron designs.
The day passes by easily and the sun has started to set, with dives in the pool and light lunch, with stories from Ava and Magda about the thugs they have gone after and embarrassing tales about their men. Iris was right, this is good, the women seem to have a deep bond and they all adore Iris like a little sister.
I feel a little prickle in my heart at the thought. She has a job, a life, a man and she doesn’t even need a big sister to take care of her. She has four of them and all of them formidable. Especially, Ava, Lysa and Magda that seem to have a dangerous glint in their eye. Although Chiara seems tough too. Not so much with her little round belly but she is not a frail woman.
“How are you, Chiara?” Ava asks.
“I am fine! No vertigos and no vomits. I am lucky. So, all I have to deal with is an overprotective Ironhand that breathes down my neck if I even think of picking something up. If he could, he would feed me cause the spoon seems too heavy.”
Everyone laughs at that but Lysa that gives a wide smile that doesn’t reach her eyes. I scowl deeply when I see Lysa gulp hard and look away for a moment biting down her jaw.
“I am glad Ariadne will have a little friend. It’s time you all join the mommy club,” Ava laughs.
“Wow,” Magda raises her hands in defense. “Some of us are not ready yet!”
“Does Runner know that?”
“Luckily he does. He is not like Vik here that can’t wait to be a Dad,” Magda points at Lysa.
That is what breaks the woman that hides her face in hands before breaking down in sobs. Ava is at her side instantly and wraps her arms around her while Magda kneels before her and apologizes.
“What is wrong, Lysa? Did I say something wrong?”
“I...” That warrior woman seems to be crumbling down. “I may not be able to have a baby,” she openly cries.
The Valkyries look at each other and I freeze. Lysa keeps crying and Ava wraps her protectively in her arms.
“What did the doctors say?” Ava demands.
“The gunshot wound,” Lysa utters.
At her words, Magda stands up and takes a few steps back shocked. The rest of the Valkyries look at her and Iris extends a hand that Magda refuses.
“It has destroyed...” Lysa can’t even complete a sentence. “I have half the chances and it’s...”
Absolute silence falls for a few moments. Lysa is crying in Ava’s arms, Iris is caressing her hair and back, Chiara is keeping her distance, feeling bad all of the sudden for her happiness. But Magda is in the worst state.
She is frantic, walking around and driving her fingers through her hair again and again. Her breaths are shallow and the blood is drained from her face and lips.
“It’s my fault, I did this,” she mutters suddenly. “My fault.”
“Magda...” Lysa looks up to her with a warm look.
“No, Lysa. You don’t get to comfort me. We all know why you got shot in the first place. I did this to you. I did!” Magda takes deep breaths as if trying to keep basic functions.
“Magda!” Lysa springs up and takes Magda’s hands in hers. “Look at me! Magda!”
But the blonde is inconsolable and tears run down her cheeks. She refuses to look at Lysa’s pleading eyes and for a while they both try to get the other to listen. Ava gets up and goes to Lysa and Iris fights to control Magda that is spiraling down into a deep darkness. Chiara is sitting there, fighting not to cry.
Despite the bad situation, this is the moment I feel closer to the Valkyries. Yes, they were warm and happy to have me here but I felt like an outsider, like the one with the still oozing wound. And they all seemed so happy and composed. I see it now, though. They all have been through some kind of hell and they are here. Alive and smiling.
“I can’t have children either,” I say softly.
But somehow I was heard and all eyes turn to me.
“Tamie?” Iris is the first to snap out of the shock.
“I mean, I probably can’t,” I shrug.
Iris comes to me and looks me in the eye. I am emotionless as I say these words but my little flower is anything but. She is dreading the words that will come out of my mouth and she is steeling herself.
“Tamie. God, why?” Iris runs her hand over my arm.
Can I hide it? Should I? Is there any point to this? What I got from the time I spent with the Valkyries is that they have all been through some hard times. They didn’t talk about it but I feel it. Chiara less but the pain the others have been through makes up for it. Even my Iris.
And yet they were here, with their colorful swimsuits, the smile on their faces and a future ahead of them with men that love them. They still carry that bit of darkness, it’s part of who they are and it struggles to resurface at any turn and twist. I see it. Ava’s rage that she swallows, Lysa’s disbelief that she pushes aside, Iris’s fear that she fights and Magda’s melancholy that she disperses. They will understand.
“I... I was given by Daultrey to these men,” I look at Iris that shivers when I say that man’s name.
I know that moment that all her scars, those deep marring scars are that cruel man’s doing, that man that our mother simply gave us to because she owed him money. And I know deep in my heart that he is no more. Like Freddie is no more. The same man, Rage, has freed us both.
“They...” I am struggling to get the words out but I feel a wave of support from all the Valkyries. “They said they had to test the product.”
Iris whimpers and tightens her grip around me and the rest of them stand still as if this is a sacred moment.
“I was taken by all these men again and again,” I say coldly, as if this has happened to someone else. “In the end, I was bleeding badly. Only then did they stop.”
Iris can’t take it anymore and crumbles at my feet. Ava comes and sits at my one side and Lysa on my other. Magda is still standing looking down at us.
“I don’t remember much but I do remember saying that they got “one less problem with that bitch” and they all laughed. They gave shots to the other girls to avoid pregnancies. They never did to me.”
The silence is deeper this time and no one moves. I feel their tense emotions radiating off them and I feel... connected, finally. Especially with my sister that looks at me with a mixture of sadness and pride but not an ounce of pity. Sadness for what was done to me. Pride that I am here, alive and standing. I give her a faint smile and then turn to Lysa.
“I guess half the chances are better than none, right?”
For some reason, that is what disperses the heavy atmosphere. Lysa breaks into a crying laughter and Iris lets her head fall on my knees while Ava caresses my back. Only Magda is still lost in her guilt.
“Come on, Magda,” Lysa smiles at her and opens her arms. “We have all been fucked and screwed by men. And we’ve all been put back together by men as well. But most of all we still have each other.”
Magda struggles but gives into Lysa’s request and the two women hug and cry together.
“I want to know one thing,” Ava says a bit more lightly still with a dark glint in her eyes. “These... product testing men. Are they still alive?”
Both Iris and Ava are looking at me.
“Wood came in with Rage,” I start.
“Say no more,” Ava gives me a side smile. “Iris’s man sure wants all the fun to himself.”
And just like that, with a few more jokes from Ava, from a soothing caress from my sister and with showering Chiara with love to make her not be guilty cause she is happy and full, that day turned out better than I thought.
And still, in the back of my mind, I have one thing: I want to see Wood again. I need to see him.