ExcerptHer feet splashed into the water at the lake’s edge. Quickly Johana did a little hop onto the embankment and pulled off her shoes to empty them. A glance over her shoulder at the reflection in the water told her exactly where she was. She had entered the painting where the forest met the lake, exactly what she had been facing on the other side. If she continued to follow the shoreline, she knew she would inevitably arrive at the castle depicted in the background.
Johana inhaled the fragrance of the woods. It was real. This was all real. All around her the sights and sounds and smells were exactly as she expected. Overhead the sun shone through the rustling leaves. The weather was warm, very spring-like. She could even hear birds chirping in the distance.
Bushes dragged against her pants legs. Small white flowers littered the ground along with dead leaves. Everywhere she looked the place breathed of reality. Whether it was an alternate world or some kind of time portal displacement was no longer important. What mattered now was that she was inside the painting, living within its boundaries as if she had traveled there via plane, car, or on foot, and not through a solid stone wall.
Something rustled to her left. Maybe caused by a creature like a deer or raccoon. It didn’t matter. For some strange reason Johana felt perfectly safe. Stranger still, she felt perfectly at home, as though she belonged there. As though she had finally come back to the land where she’d been born.
Following the curve in the lake kept the distant castle in view. In the painting the towering structure had sat slightly off-center, but now it filled her horizon like an immense crown of stone. The closer she approached it, the more breath-taking it became.
The artwork had also displayed a smaller stone building set apart from the castle and partially concealed by the forest. The lake looped near it. As Johana continued walking toward it, she could see jeweled glints of light coming from its windows. It was a church, she realized.
And the double doors stood wide open.
Stopping several yards away, she stared at the entrance. Despite the pleasant weather, she couldn’t remember if churches left their doors open in the middle of the day. Open where anyone, including animals, could enter, seeking something to eat or a place to nest.
"Doesn’t matter," she whispered to herself. "Open doors means someone’s inside. Either that, or Mr. Castle is pretty damn sure no one is going to be bothering the place."
She walked up to the church building and took the narrow stone steps up to the entrance. The interior was dark but not oppressive. As she slowly went inside an overwhelming sense of peacefulness filled her.
The altar was covered with a white banner sewn with golden threads. Pure ivory colored tapers stood on both ends. A basket of white lilies sat on the floor before it. The candles were unlit, but enough sunlight came through the multi-colored stained glass windows to throw artificial rainbows across the pews and aisle.
A man stood before the altar, his back to the doors. Johana stared at the tall figure dressed in jeans and a short-sleeved polo shirt. Long minutes passed as he remained in contemplation or prayer. Suddenly he turned to leave and gasped to see her standing mere yards away.
"Who the hell are you? How’d you get here?"
He was angry. Surprised and angry. Johana didn’t blame him in the least. His perfect paradise had been intruded upon and no longer belonged exclusively to him.
"My name’s Johana Reese, Mr. Castle."
Darkness suddenly seemed to descend outside. Clouds gathered to block the sunlight streaming in, and the building grew dimmer. However, Castle either didn’t notice the growing darkness, or he didn’t care.
"The reporter? You’re that reporter that’s been hounding me? What in hell are you doing here? Go back!"
"I can’t," she told him, glancing over her shoulder. Was that thunder?
"Why not? Just go back the same way you got in! Stick your hand through the wall and someone’ll drag you out. Now go!" His face was so flushed a vein stood out above his right eyebrow. The wind picked up outside, blowing leaves into the sanctuary.
"I can’t," Johana repeated. "I don’t think I could find the way out without help." It was the truth. She could find her way back to the approximate area where she entered the painting, but unless there was a clearly marked exit sign, there was no way she could find the exact place.
He frowned at her, but the anger on his face did little to mar the man’s dark good looks. Johana felt her breath catch in her throat. There had been no photos or pictures to prepare her for when she finally met the man. No way she would have known what Warren William Castle looked like before now.
The man was too damned good looking. And it frightened her more than his wrath or the storm brewing outside.
"How did you manage to get here in the first place?" he asked again, this time with a little more civility. But not by much.
"The same way you did...sort of. I walked through the painting."
"How?" she echoed. "Well, I picked up one foot and set it down, then I picked up—"
Castle gave a little growl of irritation and advanced toward her. At the same time lightning crackled above them. "I don’t have time for any smartass answers. Come on. I’m taking you back."
He strode toward her on perfectly strong legs, not legs weakened by lack of use or infirmity. Johana stood her ground, undaunted by the figure quickly coming toward her. People had tried to intimidate her before. It wasn’t a tactic she wasn’t expecting.
"They’re worried about you, you know," she managed to say just as he reached for her. Too late she realized he was reaching for her left arm, her bad arm. She tried to jerk it away but she wasn’t fast enough. His large, warm hand clamped around her upper arm and started to jerk her around. Johana gave a shriek of pain as she grabbed his wrist and tried to pry it off. Her reaction made him freeze.
"What’s...wrong?" she gasped, bent over slightly as she waited for the hot agony in her withered muscles to stop lancing up her arm.
"Dammit, woman! Why do you insist on repeating every fucking thing I say?" he practically roared, reaching for her again. He said more, but the nearly-deafening boom of thunder drowned him out.
Johana flinched. Too late she realized his intent. Castle snagged her arm again but this time he also grabbed the material at her shoulder with his other hand and jerked downward, ripping the sleeve. Dumbfounded, he stared at her thin, almost skeletal arm. His hesitation gave her just enough time to come around with her other hand and land a full-fisted blow to the side of his face. Castle gave a grunt in surprise, released her arm, and staggered back a couple of steps.
"You hurt me, you son of a bitch!" Johana yelled at him. "Touch me again and I swear I’ll kick you in the nuts so hard, you’re gonna need that wheelchair over on thisside!"