Now LUST wraps around my neck like blue fingers strangling me. I’ve been accused of a crime I didn’t commit and now the Hole is my new home.
Darkness. Death. Violence. Pain.
Now every day is a fight for survival. But I won’t die. I won’t let them win.
The Hole can’t keep me. The Hole can’t break me.
I am more than my brand. I’m a fighter.
My name is Lexi Hamilton, and this is my story.
Join us Friday from 8-10 EST for a chance to get to know Abi and Missy! We have some fun games planned and you'll get to chat up the authors!
About the authors:
Abi Ketner Is a registered nurse with a passion for novels, the beaches of St. John, and her Philadelphia Phillies. A talented singer, Abi loves to go running and spend lots of time with her family. She currently resides in Lancaster, Pennsylvania with her husband, triplet daughters and two very spoiled dogs.
Melissa Kalicicki received her bachelor’s degree from Millersville University in 2003. She married, had two boys and currently lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Aside from reading and writing, her interests include running and mixed martial arts. She also remains an avid Cleveland sports fan.
Abi and Missy met in the summer of 1999 at college orientation and have been best friends ever since. After college, they added jobs, husbands and kids to their lives, but they still found time for their friendship. Instead of hanging out on weekends, they went to dinner once a month and reviewed books. What started out as an enjoyable hobby has now become an incredible adventure.
website and blog www.abiandmissy.com
As promised, here is Chapter 1 of Branded!
I’m buried six feet under, and no one hears my screams.
The rope chafes as I loop it around my neck. I pull down on it,making sure the knot is secure. It seems sturdy enough.
My legs shake. My heart beats heavy in my throat. Sweat pours downmy back.
Death and I glare at each other through my tears.
I take one last look at the crystal chandelier, the foyer outlinedwith mirrors, and the flawless decorations. No photographs adorn the walls. Nohappy memories here.
I’m ready to go. On the count of three.
I inhale, preparing myself for the finality of it all. Dropping myhands, a glimmer catches my eye. It’s my ring, the last precious gift my fathergave me. I twist it around to read the inscription. Picturing his face forcesme to reconsider my choice. He’d be heartbroken if he could see me now.
A door slams in the hallway, almost causing me to lose my balance.My thoughts already muddled, I stand, waiting with the rope around my neck.Voices I don’t recognize creep through the walls.
Curiosity overshadows my current thoughts. It’s late at night, andthis is a secure building in High Society. No one disturbs the peace here—ever.I tug on the noose and pull it back over my head.
Peering through the eyehole in our doorway, I see a large group ofarmed guards banging on my neighbors’ door. A heated conversation ensues, andmy neighbors point toward my family’s home.
It hits me. I’ve been accused and they’re here to arrest me.
My father would want me to run, and in that split second, I decideto listen to his voice within me. Flinging myself forward in fear, I scrambleup the marble staircase and into my brother’s old bedroom. The door ispartially covered, but it exists. Pushing his dresser aside, my fingers claw atthe opening. Breathing hard, I lodge myself against it. Nothing. I step backand kick it with all my strength. The wood splinters open, and my foot getscaught. I wrench it backward, scraping my calf, but adrenaline pushes meforward. The voices at the front door shout my name.
On hands and knees, Isqueeze through the jagged opening. My brother left through this passage, andnow it’s my escape too. Cobwebs entangle my face, hands, and hair. At the end,I feel for the knob, twisting it clockwise. It swings open, creaking from disuse.I sprint into the hallway and smash through the large fire escape doors at theend. A burst of cool air strikes me in the face as I jump down the ladder.
Reaching the fifth floor, I knock on a friend’s window. The lightsflicker on, and I see the curtains move, but no one answers. I bang on thewindow harder.
“Let me in! Please!” I say, but the lights darken. They know I’vebeen accused and refuse to help me. Fear and adrenaline rush through my veinsas I keep running, knocking on more windows along the way. No one has mercy.They all know what happens to sinners.
Another flight of stairs passes in a blur when I hear the guards’heavy footfalls from above. I can’t hide, but I don’t want to go withouttrying.
Help me, Daddy. I need your strength now.
My previous desolation evolves into a will to survive. I have to keep running, but I tremble andgasp for air. I steel my nerves and force my body to keep moving. In a matterof minutes, my legs cramp and my chest burns. I plunge to the ground, scrapingmy knee and elbow. A moan escapes from my chest.
“Stop!” Theirvoices bounce off the buildings. “Lexi Hamilton, surrender yourself,” theycommand. They’re gaining on me.
I resist the urgeto glance back, running into what I assume is an alley. I’m far from ourhigh-rise in High Society as I plunge into a poorer section of the city wherethe streets all look the same and the darkness prevents me from recognizinganything. I’m lost.
My first instinct is to leap into adumpster, but I retain enough sense to stay still. I crouch and peek around it,watching them dash by. The abhorrent smell soon leaves me vomiting untilnothing remains in my stomach. Desperation overtakes me, as I know my retchingwas anything but silent. My last few seconds tick away before they find me.Everyone knows about their special means of tracking sinners.
I push myself tomy feet and look left, right, and left again. Their batons click against theirblack, leather belts, and their boots stomp the cement on both sides of me. Ishrink into myself. Their heavy steps mock my fear, growing closer and closeruntil I know I’m trapped.
Never did Iimagine they’d come for me. Never did I imagine all those nights I heard themdragging someone else away that I’d join them.
“You’re asinner,” they say. “Time to leave our society.”
I stand defiant.I refuse to bend or break before them even as I shiver with fear.
“There’s noreason to make this difficult. The more you cooperate, the smoother this willbe for everyone,” a guard says.
I cringe into theblackness along the wall. I’m innocent, but they won’t believe me or care.
The next instant,my face slams into the pavement as one guard plants a knee in my back andanother handcuffs me. A warm liquid trails into my mouth. Blood. Their fingersgrip my arms like steel traps as they peel me off the cement. The tops of myshoes scrape along the ground as I’m dragged behind them until they discard meinto the back of a black vehicle. The doors slam in unison with one guardstationed on each side of me, my shoulders digging into their arms. Thehandcuffs dig into my wrists, so I clasp them together hard behind me and pressmy back into the seat, unwilling to admit how much it hurts. My dignity is allI have left.
Swallowing hard,I stare ahead to avoid their eyes.
Did they needso many guards to capture me?
I’m not carrying any weapons, nor do I ownany. I don’t even know self-defense. High Society frowns on activities likethat.
The driver jerksthe vehicle around and I try to keep my bearings, but it’s dark and the scenerychanges too fast. Hours pass and the air grows warmer, more humid, the fartherwe drive. The landscape mutates from city to rolling hills. They don’t botherblindfolding me because they escort all the sinners to the same place—the Hole.Twenty-foot cement walls encase the chaos within. There’s no way out and no wayin unless they transport you. They say the Hole is a prison with no rules. Welearned about it last year in twelfth grade.
To the outside, I’m filth now. I’ll never be allowed to return tothe life I knew. No one ever does.
“All sinners gothrough a transformation,” one of the guards says to me. His smirk infuriatesme. “I’m sure you’ve heard all kinds of stories.” I don’t respond. I don’t wantto think about the things I’ve been told.
“You won’t lasttoo long, though. Young girls like you get eaten alive.” He pulls a strand ofmy hair up to his face.
Get your hands off me, you pig. I wantto lash out, but resist. The punishment for disobeying authority is severe, andI’m not positioned to defy him.
They’re the Guards of the Commander.They’re chosen from a young age and trained in combat. They keep the order ofsociety by using violent methods of intimidation. No one befriends a guard.Relationships with them are forbidden inside the Hole.
Few have seen thecommander. His identity stays under lock and key. His own paranoia and desireto stay pure drove him to live this way. He controls our depraved society andbelieves sinners make the human race unforgivable. His power is a crushingfist, rendering all beneath him helpless. So much so, even family members turnon each other when an accusation surfaces. Just an accusation. No trial, noevidence, nothing but an accusation.
I lose myself inthoughts of my father.
“Never show fear,Lexi,” my father said to me before he was taken. “They’ll use it against you.”His compassionate eyes filled with warning as he commanded me to be strong.That was many years ago, but I remember it clearly. My father. My rock. The oneperson in my life who provided unconditional love.
The vehiclestops, and I’m jerked back to reality. “Get out,” the guard orders whilepulling me to my feet. The doors slide open and the two guards lift me up andout into the night. A windowless cement building looms in front of us, lookingbarren in the darkness.
The coolness ofthe air sends a shiver up my spine. This is really happening. I’ve been labeleda sinner. My lip starts to quiver, but I bite it before anyone sees. They shoveme in line and I realize I’m not alone. Women and men stand with faces frozenwhite in fear. A guard grabs my finger, pricks it, and dabs my blood on a tinymicrochip.
I follow the man in front of me into the nextroom where we’re lined up facing the wall. Glancing right, I see one of the mencrying.
“Spread yourlegs,” one of the guards says.
They remove myouter layers and their hands roam up and down my body.
What do theythink I could possibly be hiding?I press my head into the wall, trying to block out what they’re doing to me.
“MOVE!” a guardcommands. So I shuffle across the room, trying to cover up.
Five of us sit inthe holding room. One by one, they pull people into the next room, forcing therest of us to wonder what torture we’ll endure. An agonizing amount of timepasses. I lean my head back and try to imagine a place far away. The dooropens.
A guard escortsme out of the room, and I don’t have time to look back. As soon as the doorcloses, they pick me up and place me on a table. It’s cold and my skin sticksto it slightly, like wet fingers on an ice cube. Then, they exit in procession,and I lie on the table with a doctor standing over me. His hands are busy as hespeaks.
“Don’t move. Thiswill only take a few minutes. It’s time for you to be branded.”
A wet cloth thatsmells like rubbing alcohol is used to clean my skin. Then he places a metalcollar around my neck.
The collar locksinto place, and I struggle to breathe. The doctor loosens it some as I focus onthe painted black words above me.
The Seven Deadly Sins:
Lust ¾ Blue
Gluttony ¾ Orange
Greed ¾ Yellow
Sloth ¾ Light Blue
Wrath ¾ Red
Envy ¾ Green
Pride ¾ Purple
“Memorize it. Might keep you alive longer ifyou know who to stay away from.” He opens my mouth, placing a bit inside. “Bitethis.”
Within seconds,the collar heats from hot to scorching. The smell of flesh sizzling makes myhead spin. I bite down so hard a tooth cracks.
“GRRRRRRRRR,”escapes from deep within my chest. Just when I’m about to pass out, thetemperature drops, and the doctor loosens the collar.
He removes it andsits me up. Excruciating pain rips through me and I’m on the verge of a mentaland physical breakdown. Focus. Don’t pass out.
Stainless steelcounters and boring white walls press in on me. A guard laughs at me from anobservation room above and yells, “Blue. It’s a great color for a pretty youngthing like yourself.” His eyes dance with suggestion. The others meander aroundlike it’s business as usual.
I finally find myvoice and turn to the doctor.
“Are you going togive me clothes?” A burning pain spreads like fire from my neck to my jaw,making me wince.
He points to aset of folded grey scrubs on a chair. I cover myself as much as I canand scurry sideways. Grabbing my new clothes, I pull the shirt over my head andtry to avoid the raw meat around my throat. I quickly knot the cord of my pantsaround my waist and slide my feet into the hospital-issue slippers as thedoctor observes. He hands me a bag labeled with my name.
“Nothing isallowed through the door but what we’ve given you,” he says.
I hide my righthand behind me, hoping no one notices. A guard scans my body and opens hishand.
“Give it to me,”he says. “Don’t make me rip off your finger.” He crouches down and I turn tostone. I don’t know what to do, so I beg.
“My father gave this to me. Please, let mekeep it.” I smash my eyes shut and think of the moment my father handed thegolden ring to me.
“It was my mother’s ring,” he’d said. “She’s the strongestwoman I ever knew.” With tears in his eyes, he reached for my hand. “Lexi,you’re exactly like her. She’d want you to wear this. No matter how this worldchanges, you can survive.” I turned the gold band over in my palm and read theengraving.
You can overcome anything…short of death.
“You’re going to take the one thing thatmatters the most to me?” I say, glaring into the guard’s emotionless eyes.“Isn’t it enough taking my life, dignity, and respect?”
A hard blow fallsupon my back. As I fall, my hands shoot out to stop me from smashing into thewall in front of me. The guard bends down and grabs my chin with his meatyfist.
“Look at me,” hecommands. I look up andhe smiles with arrogance.
“What the hell?”He staggers a step backward. “What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong with youreyes?”
“Nothing,” Irespond, confused.
“What color arethey?”
“Turquoise.” Iglower at him.
“Interesting,” hesays, regaining his composure. “Now those’ll get you in trouble.”
Reality slaps meacross the face. I have my father’s eyes. They can't take them from me. I twistthe ring off my finger and drop it in his hand.
“Take the damnring,” I say. I walk to the door. He swipes a card and the massive door slidesopen to the outside.
“You have to wearyour hair back at all times, so everyone knows what you are.” He hands me atie, so I pull my frizzy hair away from my face and secure it into a ponytail.My neck burns and itches as my hand traces the scabs that have already begun toform. Squinting ahead into the darkness, I almost run into a guard standing onthe sidewalk.
“Watch where you’re going,” he says, shovingme backward. His stiff figure stands tall and I cringe at the sharpness of hisvoice.
“Cole, this isyour new assignment, Lexi Hamilton. See to it she feels welcome in her newhome.” The guard departs with a salute.
“Let’s move,”Cole says.
I take two steps and collapse, my knees giving out. Theunforgiving pavement reopens the scrapes from earlier and I struggle to stand.A powerful arm snatches me up, and I see his face for the first time.