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CHAPTER ONESharon decided that she hated her coat. She grimaced as she glanced up at the garment, a grey, folded lump in the baggage rack above her head.It symbolized the dismal boredom of the third day of the bus trip. The towns and farms she'd seen through her window had long since become as uniform and featureless as the coat itself. And the bus was more than half-empty, adding a note of loneliness to its already gloomy interior.She leaned back against the grainy leather of the bus seat, grateful for the small comfort of the touch of her new dress. The pale-orange garment was quite chic and quite new.
She tried to read a paperback novel, but replaced the book in her handbag after fifteen minutes of flipping through its pages. She planted her elbow firmly on the armrest, leaned her head into the palm of her hand and began to lull herself to sleep.She was half-asleep when she felt the bus slow down. She opened her eyes and sat up slowly, just as the bus driver stepped out of his seat and into the center aisle.The sight startled her for a moment, until she realized that the bus had stopped."All right, this is a rest stop."The driver was a small, thin man with a sharply angular face. He delivered his oration with a distinct New England twang."We're going to be here one hour. No more, no less. Remember what I said before. I won't wait for you, and I won't look for you. The next bus arrives here at eight tomorrow morning. If you miss this bus, you'll just have to wait. You have one hour."The speech was a minor variation of the one he gave each time the bus made a stop. He scowled as he spoke. She thought that he blended with the bus so well, he could have been one of its parts.She stood up and stretched out her arms. Taking a deep breath, she thrust her shoulders back, glancing down with satisfaction at the way her pert, young breasts jutted forward. Seeing the mature curves outlined against the fabric made her feel quite adult.The passengers had formed a single line as they began to file out of the bus. Sharon stepped into the line. When she approached the door, she felt a blast of chill night air. She thought to go back for the coat, but decided she'd rather feel cold than have to wear it.She stepped but of the bus gingerly, careful not to mar her shoes on the rough asphalt covering the parking lot. A breath of night air refreshed her, lifting her spirits.Her spirits dropped abruptly when she saw the building the other passengers were approaching. It was a truck stop compound, identical to the ones the bus had stopped at all along the route. A shiver of disgust coursed through her as she remembered the poor food and shabby service of the other cafeterias. Angrily, she turned and headed for the bus, determined not to eat until the end of the journey.Across the highway from where the bus was parked was a stretch of one-story buildings. Sharon's eye was caught by a display of flashing colored lights.She walked curiously towards them, and saw that they formed a sign for a restaurant. She suddenly felt hungry, and decided to investigate. She thought she might be able to get a half-way decent meal there.She smiled with satisfaction as she crossed the highway. The restaurant looked quite good. And quite expensive.She rummaged in her handbag and pulled out her wallet. Cursing the little extravagances she had indulged in, she counted her money.She doubted that she had the price of a full meal. But even a cup of coffee and a piece of cake there would be better than the fare offered at the bus stop. Throwing her shoulders back, she strode across the parking lot, straight towards the restaurant.A car was parked outside. She stood stock still in front of it, marvelling at its huge, shiny black frame. It was easily the most luxurious car she had ever seen.She walked around it, peering through tinted windows. She was unable to see the interior. Bits of light from the restaurant sign were scattered on the hood. She thought they looked like red and gold jewels.She allowed herself a few minutes to savor the car, then went into the restaurant. She was immediately impressed by the decor of the place. But she was disappointed to find that all the tables were taken. She glanced at her watch, and saw she had only forty-five minutes before the bus was due to leave."Hello! Would you like to sit and eat with us?"She turned around slowly, searching the seated faces for the speaker."Right here, darling," the somewhat British voice called out.Sharon smiled. The caller seemed quite pleasant. She was a tall, square-shouldered woman in her early thirties.Her face was very pretty. Sharon stared at her for a moment before she realized that the woman wore no makeup ., of any kind. She suddenly felt absurd about the bright-red coloring she'd smeared on her lips.Seated next to her host was a girl who appeared to be Sharon's age. She, too, wore no makeup. Her face was also pretty, and round. Sharon thought she looked like a pixie.The girl raised a slender arm and waved to her. The older woman nodded and smiled. Sharon stepped quickly over to the table."It's really sweet of you to let me share your table," said Sharon, as she pulled out a chair. The two women were seated on an upholstered bench running the length of the restaurant's back wall. Sharon sat across the table from them."Oh, don't mention it," the older woman smiled. "We always enjoy a bit of company with dinner. And you look like such a lovely person.""That's awfully nice of you to say." Sharon suppressed a blush. "My name is Sharon.""Sharon. My name is Leslie. Her name is Greta." She gestured to the younger girl as she spoke.A waiter walked over and gingerly placed three menus on the table. He stepped away. Leslie ignored him. With a slight frown, she picked up the menu and began to scan its contents.Sharon picked up her menu. As she had expected, the prices were more than she could afford. A shiver of angry disappointment ran through her. She looked up at the smiling faces of Leslie and Greta, and decided that their company made up for her skimpy meal.Leslie continued to study the menu."So far, I haven't found anything for you, dear," she said to Greta.Sharon noticed that Greta hadn't touched her menu. She sat with her hands in her lap, her smile fixed on her face."Oh, here," said Leslie.Then she turned to Sharon. "I do hope you weren't offended by our ignoring you while we assembled our dinner."Sharon shook her head and smiled."Did you drive here?" Leslie asked."No," Sharon smiled, "I'm on a bus trip."Leslie smiled sympathetically. "Oh, you weren't riding on that horrible old thing!""Oh, I've been on a number of busses. This one is absolutely the worst!""Well, I do all my traveling by car. But I know what those busses are like!"A waiter stepped up and stood silently by the table. Leslie gestured to Sharon, and he turned to take her order."I, I'll have a piece of your apple pie. And a cup of coffee."Leslie looked up at the waiter."Could you wait a moment, please?" She turned back to Sharon."I hope you don't mind me meddling, but I don't think that that's a proper meal for you."Sharon blushed slightly. She looked down at the table."I'm afraid it's all I can afford."Leslie smiled tenderly. "You must let me buy you a meal."Sharon blushed deeper. "I, I couldn't accept.""But I insist," said Leslie firmly.Greta spoke for the first time since Sharon had met them."It would be a discourtesy for you to refuse." Her voice had a soft, velvety quality to it that Sharon liked."Well, all right then," said Sharon quietly. She reached for the menu."I know just the dish for you," Leslie said. She uttered a string of French-sounding words to the waiter."This is really wonderful of you," said Sharon.Leslie questioned Sharon about her schooling. She smiled when Sharon told her that she had spent three years in England."That's wonderful! That's where we're from, you know.""Yes, I recognized the accents immediately. You sound like you've traveled a great deal.""Oh, heavens, yes! It's taken quite a bit of the British out of our voices, I must say."The waiter brought them their food. Sharon recognized the dish. She'd had it often in those times before her family life had been torn apart."This is my favorite, really," she said, scooping a huge forkful."I'm so pleased you're happy with it," murmured Leslie. She glanced at Greta's dish, then turned to her own food.Sharon realized with a start that she had forgotten about the time. She glanced quickly at her watch."Oh, no! I think I've missed my bus! Please excuse me."She jumped up and dashed over to a window. She felt a sinking sensation in her stomach as she gazed out over the empty parking lot. The bus was nowhere to be seen. She remembered the driver's warning. Her cheerful mood vanished. She would have to wait almost ten hours in the truck stop."I'm afraid I've really done it," she said as she returned to the table."Missed your bus?" Leslie's eyes sparkled with bemused sympathy.Sharon forced herself to chuckle."Uh-huh," she said, as brightly as she could. "As they say in England, I'm for it, now.""It sounds beastly," said Leslie, "spending the night in that bus stop.""Yes, and the characters that inhabit it at night." Sharon stared down at her plate to hide a grimace."It's all our fault,'" said Leslie.Sharon looked up quickly. "Oh, no! I should have been more careful about the time. It's my fault, really.""No," Leslie continued. "We caught your attention, so it's our fault. You couldn't watch the time."Leslie fell silent. She stared at Sharon, then smiled kindly."Sharon, would you like to spend the night with us? We have plenty of room, and we'd love to have you.""Oh, I couldn't," said Sharon, taken aback by the offer. "You've already done too much"Oh, nonsense! It's no trouble for us at all. And we're not too far."Sharon felt an overwhelming urge to accept the offer. The two women had given her no reason to be suspicious of them. And she knew she was no longer worth kidnapping."I would be most glad," she said demurely.Leslie and Greta smiled brightly. Sharon felt suddenly very glad to be going with them."Our car's parked right outside," said Leslie.The waiter brought the check. Leslie left a large bill" on it, and walked out of the restaurant. Great and Sharon trailed behind her.Sharon gasped. "This, this is your car?""Yes. Do you like it?""I, I love it! I was standing here admiring it before I came in. It's absolutely gorgeous!" Sharon sounded very much her eighteen years.Leslie slid into the front seat. Greta opened the rear door, and she and Sharon slid into the back. Sharon started slightly as she saw a tall figure sitting motionless in the driver's seat.He was obviously the chauffeur. Sharon thought about the size of the bill Leslie had left on the table. She thought that her hosts must be very rich. She leaned back against the soft leather back rest of the car seat. It seemed like the utmost luxury to her after the cold material of the bus seat."Are you comfortable back there?""Oh, yes!" Sharon almost giggled. "You're so very kind."Greta stared straight ahead of her. Sharon studied her. There was something exotic, weird even, about the girl."Are you watching the road?""Yes," Greta replied. The alertness of her tone startled Sharon. She had appeared to be in some sort of trance."I think it's beautiful the way the highway zooms under the hood," Greta continued. "Look."Sharon slid closer to her. She leaned forward, and was able to see the white line of the highway disappear beneath the car's hood."That is interesting," she said.Greta sank back into the seat and closed her eyes.Sharon felt suddenly very tired. She felt a graceful sleepiness overtake her, and leaned her head to the backrest. She drifted slowly into a deep sleep.She awoke with a start when Greta gently pressed her hand on her shoulder. She shook her head vigorously."Yes?" Then she noticed that the car had stopped."We're here," smiled Greta.Greta threw the door open and stepped out. Sharon slid across the seat and quickly followed her.She found herself standing in front of the dim outline of a stately-looking structure. She couldn't make out much of its details in the dark, moonless night. She guessed that it was styled after a gothic mansion."Is this a mansion of some sort?"Leslie stepped up beside her. "Oh, it's many things, dear."She started walking towards the building. Sharon followed behind her, smiling at the thought of the coat she'd left behind in the baggage rack of the bus. She shivered at the chill of the night air, but smiled to think she wouldn't have to see it until the next morning.She found herself walking on a hard surface. She looked down and saw that she was walking over stone slabs. These led to a massive front door, grim and somewhat terrible-looking in the darkness.She mounted the flight of steps. She glanced at the figures of Leslie and Greta, walking on either side of her. They were dimly outlined against the night.Leslie stepped ahead and pressed a button in a panel to the right of the door.A small yellow light appeared in the center of the door. Leslie spoke softly into the panel. She dropped her hand and clutched at a gorgon's head doorknob, which made Sharon smile. The door swung open slowly."Hope the security doesn't bother you," chuckled Leslie. "We do like our privacy, you know.""I think it's a good idea," replied Sharon.A warm glow came from the doorway. She stepped inside eagerly. The room she found herself in was exquisitely furnished. But she couldn't make out any single distinguishing feature. She decided that she was too tired to take in her surroundings properly.Leslie led her over to a fireplace in which a big, bright fire was burning. Sharon sat herself down on a couch and let the fire's warmth creep over her like a blanket."Well, what do you think of the place?"Leslie's bright, cheery voice jerked her out of her warm reverie."Oh, I think it's wonderful! So comfortable. It's, well, home-like. And this couch!"She ran her hand over the fur covering of the couch."I just can't thank you enough for letting me stay here," she said softly.She beamed at Leslie, and then at Greta sitting at the opposite end of the couch. They stared into the fire."Would you like some tea before bedtime?"Sharon forced herself not to grin at this very British suggestion."Oh, yes, I'd love some."Leslie reached into the pocket of a plain jacket she wore over a rather severe grey skirt. She pulled out what looked like a flat metal disc."Debbie. Living room." She looked directly at the disc as she spoke.There was a cold, decisive note in her voice which Sharon found puzzling. It was completely different from the bright, cheery tone she had maintained since Sharon had met her.A girl wearing a maid's uniform appeared an instant later. Sharon was a bit puzzled by her appearance.She wore the ordinary black dress and white lace apron that constituted a maid's uniform. But she was barefoot, and wore no stockings."Tea, Debbie darling." Leslie smiled. Sharon was puzzled again. Her tone had returned to its original brightness.The maid disappeared quickly. Leslie beamed at Sharon."House blend, dear. I'm sure you'll like it.""I'm sure it will be the best tea I've ever had."Debbie came back about ten minutes later. She was carrying a large silver tray. Sharon eyed the large brass teapot in the center. She guessed it had been imported from Asia."Afghanistan," smiled Leslie."Why, that's just what I was about to ask!"The maid dropped a napkin. It fluttered to the floor, just in front of the fireplace. She swiftly bent down to pick it up.Sharon watched as the waist of her skirt rode up. The woman was naked underneath. Sharon got a .good look at her buttocks. She fought to suppress a gasp as she saw that they were covered with bright red weals.The maid turned around quickly and handed Sharon a cup filled-with a cloudy liquid. She sipped, and a spicy taste filled her mouth."Oh! This is good."They talked for a while about little things. Leslie kept asking her questions, while Greta sat silently and stared into the fireplace.Sharon discussed her family and her past life. After a while, Leslie fell silent and leaned back against the couch.Great stretched out her arms and yawned. Leslie looked at her watch."You must be awfully tired from that trip. Greta will show you to your room, and I'll be expecting you at breakfast."""That will be fine," said Sharon. "I am tired And, oh, I don't have to sleep on that bus tonight!""Goodnight, now," said Leslie as she got up. She walked quickly away.Greta got up slowly. Sharon followed her through the large, darkened room."We can use the elevator. I like it-it's fun."Greta stepped up to a small metal gate. She gripped a brass handle, and pulled the gate open."Right in here."Sharon stepped through the opening and found herself in a small cubicle. Greta shut the door behind her and pressed a button.Sharon laughed as the cubicle shot upwards."That was fun," she said, stepping out into a carpeted corridor."This way," said Greta, pointing to her right. She started walking quickly down the hall.She stopped in front of a large wooden door. Sharon stepped up beside her, and tried to make out the carvings with which the door was covered."What are these?""Oh, I don't know. They've been there for ages."Greta put her hand on the doorknob, and pushed the door open.Sharon stepped inside the room. Greta stepped in behind her, and flicked on a light switch."Oh, this is a marvelous room!" Sharon stared at the large, four-poster bed stretching out into the center of the room."You can put your things in there." Greta pointed to a long closet that ran the entire length of the wall opposite the bed. "We'll take care of your luggage later.""Oh, I'm sure it will just sit on the bus," said Sharon with a laugh.A strange look crossed Greta's face for an instant."Oh, I meant so that no one will steal it." She spoke quickly."Oh, there's just one thing," she continued. "We just don't have a nightgown for you. Would you mind sleeping in the buff? If it's any problem-""Oh, not at all. The room is quite warm. And those blankets look delicious.""Good! We'll call you for breakfast." She started to walk to the door."This is all too wonderful of you. You're much too kind.""Oh, think nothing of it," replied Greta, as she opened the door."Goodnight," called Sharon, as Greta left.