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Becoming Briar (Rumple's Curse: A Reverse Harem Retelling Book 2) by Erin West, Nicole Kelley (1)

Chapter One

The words from the Oracle echo through my head on a loop.

“A baby born of light, destined for the night.

Cursed to dormancy due to fright.

Hidden away to withstand the fate of time.

Morals tested by those of the Dark for her to ascend to her true self.

Four bonds to bind power so strong, to conquer the one who does wrong.”

The Oracle’s white eyes, as they stare into mine, will always haunt me. What does this even mean? This is my purpose, but I have to figure out what the hell it all means.

As soon as the words are out of her mouth, Bael snatches me away, his usual calm demeanor nowhere to be seen. The corners of his blue eyes are crinkled in concern which alarms me, but I’ll be damned if I let him know. “Something caught on fire?”

He pauses and looks at me in annoyance. “What the fuck does that mean?”

Shrugging, I take in my surroundings. We are back on the streets of the Underworld town, maneuvering around some strange creatures out and about. Some have spikes all over their body while others have ooze leaking from their face. Moans and cries of pain and terror are ringing in my ears, and I shake my head, hoping to wake up from the nightmare.

Nope, no luck there. “I mean, why are we in a hurry? We just ran out on that nice lady, and I had some questions.”

Narrowing his eyes, he takes a menacing step toward me. “Do you really think she was being nice? This is the Underworld.” He taps me on the head. “If we asked questions, then we would owe her, and believe me, you don’t want to owe anyone here.”

Oh, hell no. I grab his finger and push it away. “Don’t patronize me like that again. I’m ready to go back home anyways. I’m sure Drake and Oren are going crazy.”

Bael’s shoulders stiffen and he clenches his jaw. “Now is not the time to go back up there.” He looks around and leans into my ear. “Rumple is after you, and you have no fucking clue how to protect yourself. All you’ll wind up doing is getting yourself hurt.”

“Yes, because staying here in Hell is so much safer.” I roll my eyes and groan in disgust. “No thanks, I think I’ll take my chances.”

He grabs my arm, pulling me to his side. “Look around, Briar.” He waves one hand out in front of him. “Don’t you think this is the best place to train? One, no one comes down here willingly. And two, these assholes are the best ones to learn how to fight with. They don’t play by the rules and you’ll be prepared for anything.”

Dammit. I hate to admit it, but he does have a point. If I were to go back to Earth, Drake, Eli, and Oren would just baby me, not wanting to hurt me or put me in harm’s way. Maybe staying down here for a little longer will help me learn to protect myself and those around me. “Fine, but only for a week. I need to get back home.”

Frowning, he turns away from me. “Okay, if you still want to.”

Whatever. At least he agreed. I just hope the others don’t go crazy while I’m gone. They wouldn’t forget about me. That’s what I’m counting on anyway. I don’t know what I’d do without them.

I follow behind him as he twists and turns through the buildings. He’s back to his usual solemn self, so at least it’s something familiar. The structures are old, and the further we move to the center, the more run down they become. There are cracks in the walls and some of the windows have begun to sag. It’s like I’m back in my neighborhood in Atlanta.

The cries are getting so loud they almost feel as if they are echoing in my mind. There is a guy beating the hell out of another creature right in the middle of the street. No one is paying attention, but the guy’s clothes are drenched with blood and it’s smeared on his cheek. The scene is even creepier because he has a huge smile on his face, like he’s enjoying the torture.

As soon as we walk past, we run into a group of men grabbing at a woman who keeps screaming, “No,” with tears pouring down her cheeks.

I grab Bael’s hand, and he turns to me, eyebrows furrowed as he rubs the back of his neck.

I glance at the girl. “We’ve got to help her.”

Tilting his head, he stares at me. “No, this is the way it is, Briar. This is her destiny.”

“To be manhandled and taken against her will?” No, it can’t be.

His gaze softens, just for a quick moment, before hardness replaces his expression. “She’s getting what she deserves. In the Underworld, each person is assigned a level. She’s assigned to three, which means she wasn’t the nicest on earth. She had to have done some pretty bad shit to wind up here. Everyone gets what they deserve. That’s the point of this place.”

What could she have done to warrant a fate like this? I shudder. Maybe I don’t want to know.

He reaches out and grabs my chin. “If you can’t handle this, you won’t be able to stand up to those against you.”

“I’m not sure what you’re saying.” I lift my chin, meeting the challenge he’s tossing my way.

“This,” he points around him, “is only level three. If Rumple ever dies, he’ll be on level one. If you think this is bad, you severely underestimate who we’re up against.”

Shit. He’s telling the truth. I tear my gaze away from him. There are people all along the streets. Most of them are milling around, talking or shopping, but they smile and hoot at the ones causing harm to others.

Bael shakes his head and puts his hands on my shoulders. Within seconds, the world is shifting and speeding past us. I blink, and when I open my eyes, we are back in the cottage.

He sighs and sits down on the couch. “You are going to have to suck it up. I didn’t properly warn you. But tomorrow, we begin training. This was your wake-up call. Get your shit together.”

He’s right. If I’m going to win against whoever the hell is against me and get back to my mates, I’ve got to harden myself more than I already was.

“You’re right.” I let out a breath, feeling gross. “I’m going to go take a shower and wash off the day.”

I turn away and head into the bathroom, needing some time to myself. Drake’s warm smile pops into my mind. God, how I miss him. I close my eyes and picture his amber ones, black hair, and his muscular chest. I would give anything for him to just hold me in his arms once more.

Of course, Oren and Eli aren’t far from my mind.

I need to get back to Oren to learn more about my fae side. It doesn’t hurt that he’s gorgeous as well, and despite Eli’s jackass ways, I miss him just as much as the others.

There’s a loud knock at the door. “You okay?”

Fuck. How long have I been in here, just staring at the wall? “Yes, I’m fine. Just getting in the shower.”

I take off my clothes and throw them on the floor. As I walk into the shower, the water rains down on me. It smells of vanilla and jasmine, washing away all my concerns. It’s still hard to believe that by stepping in, the water begins. There are no switches or nobs to turn. I love this bathroom, with the black stones and iridescent glass door, and how calm it makes me feel.

After who knows how long, I drag myself out and grab a white towel hanging on the rack. Fuck. Once again, I ran in here without bringing clothes. I sure hope he’s preoccupied and doesn’t notice I’m naked.

Running out of the bathroom, I hurry into the bedroom, praying that my shopping bags are in there. Hmm, is it okay to pray in the Underworld? I almost cry with joy when I see them lying in the middle of the floor.

I rummage through the clothes, looking for some pajamas since I plan to stay right here. Coming across a t-shirt and pants similar to my yoga ones back home, I put them on. After getting dressed and brushing my hair, I walk back out to join Bael.

The living room and kitchen are empty, and a silence stretches beyond the walls of the cottage. But, if I’ve learned anything today, everything about this place can be misleading.

I walk around, enjoying the peace before the storm that I’m sure is coming my way.

There isn’t anything personal to allude to who Bael is, despite my search to find out any little thing I can. If I sit still, my mind will keep replaying the bombshell that was dropped on me, and I don’t want to think about it any more than I already have been.

How are the guys going to react to this revelation? Should I even tell them when I get back?

Without thinking, I walk toward the door, reaching for the knob.

A deep voice stops me in my tracks. “I thought you were staying in.”

How in the hell does he keep popping up places? I turn to face one of the puzzles in my life. “I am. I was going to sit on the porch. Is that a problem?”

He frowns. “It probably isn’t the wisest decision.”

I shrug, letting my hand fall back to my side. “And you’re one to decide what’s wise or not? Last I checked, you brought me here against my will. I’ve been in more danger here than with my mates.”

His jaw clenches and hands fist at his sides. “You’re safer here with me than with your mates.” His upper lip curls up.

Why does he have a problem when I use that term? That is what they are to me. I’ve accepted it, and either he will, too, or he won’t.

Bael stalks toward me with long strides.

My inner fire flares to the surface at his movement, and I have to concentrate on keeping it inside. Flames ignite over my hands and arms. I close my eyes and take death breaths, reining them in. When I open them again, there’s a smirk gracing his lips.

Damn him.

Crossing my arms, I glare at him and cock my hip to the side. “You think you can teach me more than the three of them?”

He chuckles, but it’s not a friendly sound. “Only one way to find out. Let’s do a short drill now.”

Oh shit. Okay, this will at least take my mind off the repeating words in my head.

“Fine. Lead the way.”

Shaking his head, Bael strides past me, opening the door. He stops about a thousand feet from the house.

I approach him, taking in every nuance of his features as he waits for me to catch up.

We face each other, and he looks me up and down, his expression remaining neutral. Trying to read him is worse than Eli.

His eyes lock on mine and our connection thrums to life.

I plant my feet and fight the urge to cross my arms to conceal my insecurity. I’ve hidden that seed of doubt away in the back of my mind for so long; sometimes I forget it even exists until it rears its ugly head.

What if I'm not good enough? Will I let everyone down?

He’s unpredictable, and I need to remain alert.

The seriousness in his eyes closes down my inner thoughts. “Defense is just as important as offense.”

Okay. I can do this shit. This is why I’ve trained in boxing for most of my adult life.

One second, he’s in front, and the next, he’s behind me, wrapping his arms around my torso, trapping my arms against my sides.

My instincts kick in. I throw my head back, hard, but meet air as he maneuvers his face out of my reach. Picking my foot up, I slam it down where his instep should be. The jarring shoots up my leg from the impact with the ground, and it hurts like hell. The pain recedes as my healing abilities take over.

Damn. He’s fast.

After taking a deep breath, I jerk my arms upward while twisting my torso away from his, a move that can break almost any hold.

His arms don’t budge. His chest shakes against my back as he chuckles.

Fuck him.

It doesn’t take much for me to unleash my fire burning beneath the surface of my skin. Flames engulf my body. My anger has blinded me against all reason, making me forget the fire has no effect on him.

How can one person make me so mad I lose my composure?

The weight disappears, and he circles around in front of me. “We have a lot of work, la mia bellezza.”

Crossing my arms over my chest, I take a couple of deep breaths. “Fine. Show me what you’ve got, Yoda.”

He smirks. “I’m definitely not a green, wrinkly old guy. Although, I am a master at many things.” His tone insinuates more than training.

Butterflies take flight in my stomach, but I watch his face. I still don’t trust him right now.

With a wink, he backs up a few steps, still facing me. “Charge me.”

Huh? My right eyebrow raises up to my hairline. “I thought we were going to work on defense.”

He sighs. “Yes, but I had to assess your skill level. Because your defense was pitiful, I need to see what we have to focus on the most.”

I roll my eyes. “Gee, thanks. I’d hate for you to sugarcoat anything.”

His expression becomes serious. “There’s no sugarcoating this, Briar. You have to know how to protect yourself when I’m not around. I can’t be at your side at all times.”

What the fuck is he talking about? “I protected myself just fine in the battle before you showed up. Why does it matter to you if I’m okay or not?”

My heart seizes in my chest while I wait for his answer. Why does it seem like this is important? If he decides to answer anyway.

Our gazes lock, and his body tenses. “Because it does. And you got lucky that time.”

That’s not the answer I thought he was going to give me. My mouth opens to voice my opinion of his response, but he interrupts me.

“We’re wasting time. Charge me.” He stands straight and doesn’t move.

I take off at a sprint for the short distance separating us. When I get within reach, I ball my fist up and aim for his gut as I step to the side of him.

He spins away and all I hit is air. I stumble a few steps and turn toward the sound of deep laughter.

A few yards away, Bael is leaning against the cottage wall, shaking his head. “Who the fuck trained you? You’re a train wreck.”

I glare at him. What a jackass. “Most guys don’t move like you.”

Crossing his arms over his muscular chest, his ice blue eyes find mine. “You’re right. Most aren’t able to move like me, but the ones after you can and will. You are in over your head, and you better be thankful I found you in time. Your other mates can’t help you.”

I don’t know if he’s right about all that, but he’s right about being in over my head. If he’s telling me that Rumple deserves to be in a place worse than what we saw today, then I need to learn from the best that’s around. It’s just unfortunate that it’s him. “Fine. You’ve made your point.”

Hands fall to his side and he grins. “It hurt, didn’t it?”

Holy shit. That man is gorgeous when he smiles. I’ve never seen him look happy. He’s always looking stressed or indifferent.

“Yes, it did.” I raise an eyebrow. “It’s very humbling.”

His face morphs back into the serious one I’m accustomed to. “Good. Now that you realize how much you need to learn, let’s get started.”

This can’t be good, but I need to put my pride aside and just learn. I refuse to be weak. “Okay, what first?”

“First, we need to work on your awareness.” He pushes off the wall and heads over to me.

I take a hesitant step back. “How exactly do you propose we do that?”

His eyes seem to lighten a shade as he gets closer. “Well, I want you to close your eyes and see if you can sense where I am.”

“Could you be any cheesier?” I can’t believe he’s suggesting this. How the hell am I supposed to sense where he is with my eyes closed? This is pointless.

Deciding to entertain his request, I sigh and close my eyes. My hands hang by my side, loose and limber, waiting to spring into action. Silence surrounds us. There’s not even a breeze blowing.

My eyebrows furrow as I listen for movement.

“Can you sense me?” His voice is everywhere and nowhere, all at the same time. It startles me out of my concentration and I begin to open my eyes.

“Keep your eyes closed.” His tone is sharp, then decreases in volume as he continues. “Tap inside yourself and use more than just human senses. You’re not human. Feel it and focus.”

He makes it sound so simple, but it seems as if he’s surrounding me. That he’s everywhere. I take a deep breath and try to calm down. Getting flustered and overwhelmed will not help me here, and for some reason, I need to prove something to myself now. I will the outside noises to leave my head and just focus on the sounds. I try for several moments, but still nothing.

Not willing to accept defeat, I concentrate even more. Soon, my core flares hotter than normal. Going with instinct, I push the warmth from the center and allow it to pulse all throughout me. It flares and the back of my eyelids take on a reddish tint.

As soon as my body acclimates to my warmth, I sense something behind me and to my right. It is moving closer; I can tell by the amount of heat that is pulsing toward me. I wait a few minutes, letting it come closer.

Just as soon as he’s close enough, I feel something foreign click inside me and turn with vampire speed, kneeing him in the crotch.

He goes down with a thud. “Holy fuck.”

Turning around, I find him crouched down, holding his groin. I can’t hide the smirk that spreads across my cheeks.

Despite the moaning, his ice blue eyes find mine and they have a tad bit of respect. “This hurts like hell, but good job.” He gets up, wincing. “Maybe there is some hope for us, after all.”

I toss my hair over my shoulder. “I can’t even say I’m sorry.”

Chuckling, he walks in a slow pace to the door. “Don’t get cocky. Being aware is crucial, but being able to defend yourself is the key.” He opens the door and turns back to me. “I’ll get my revenge on you tomorrow.”

Shit. What did I just do?