Book One: Once a Myth
ONCE UPON A TIME, a teacher surprised us with a pop quiz.
I was seventeen.
It was my last month of school.
The test comprised of a single question.
What is the worst thing that happened to you, and how did you survive it?
When the class sneered at the seemingly random query, our teacher smiled, and said, “You think this is a stupid question, but really, it’s the most important one you’ll ever answer. Why?
“Because the worst thing to ever happen to you probably hasn’t found you yet. You’re young. You’re fanciful. You’re naïve. But to know that your life will have battles, arms you for the trials ahead.
“And the answer that you write on this silly piece of paper will be there, in the back of your mind, keeping you company while you face it.”
I groaned with my classmates.
I joked with my friends.
But I did the work required.
I thought long and hard and scribbled:
The worst thing to happen to me? When Max got drunk and abandoned me at the bonfire party last year. In the middle of nowhere with intoxicated teens everywhere, I was lost and lonely.
A guy tried to feel me up. He pushed me against a tree, and the fire glowed behind him while he touched places he shouldn’t.
How did I survive it? By being brave and kneeing the bastard in the balls. By being proactive and arranging a ride home with a friend’s older sister. By being unforgiving and dumping Max.
By being wise and never forgetting the boy who tried to take what wasn’t his to take.
The teacher didn’t require us to sign our names.
We handed in our confessions anonymously.
She was right, that teacher.
We were young.
We were fanciful.
I was naïve.
Naïve to think a childish party with raging hormones and reckless drinking would be the worst thing to ever happen to me.
Now, four years later, I had a different answer to scribble down.
An answer I wished I knew how to survive.
The worst thing to ever happen to me? Being stolen, sold, and gifted. Being delivered to a man who isn’t just a man, but a monster. Being told I now belong to him.
How did I survive it?
I guess I’ll have to fight and find out…
My head raised from my knees. My eyes peered into the dank and dismal darkness. A ghostly figure of a blonde girl holding up a bowl danced in front of me.
I was hungry. Thirsty. Hurting. Lonely.
She offered salvation to most of those things, passing me a dish of nondescript food and a torn piece of bread.
My hands shook as I took the bowl from her, bending a little to reach from where I hugged myself on the top bunk.
She flashed me a smile, nodding in approval. “If we don’t eat, we don’t have enough strength to fight.”
I nodded back. I didn’t want to talk.
The men who’d snatched me from the hostel where my boyfriend and I had been staying promised painful punishment if I talked to the other girls trapped in hell with me.
But this girl…she’d only arrived today.
Her fear made her a little reckless, even though I’d seen her crying.
Men’s voices grumbled from outside the door, tearing her gaze worriedly to look. I froze with the bowl in my hands, waiting for a monster to walk in and hurt us.
But the voices faded, and the girl looked back at me. “What’s your name?”
Such a simple question.
But a terrifying one because my name was no longer mine. No longer mine to use. Freedom taken from me along with everything.
I licked my lips, testing my throat that still throbbed from screaming so hard when I’d been taken. I’d been in the communal kitchen of the hostel cooking veggie tacos for me and my boyfriend, Scott.
I’d been the only one. The only backpacker in an empty kitchen while Scott hung out in the pool hall with a guy we’d just met from Ireland.
I’d grown bored of the potato and leprechaun jokes and sought refuge in the quietness of the run-down kitchen.
Until…I hadn’t been.
Until three men arrived with black gloves and sinister smiles.
Until those men noticed me, assessed me…snatched me.
“I’m Tess,” the blonde whispered, Australian accent feathering around her words. “I was kidnapped. They hurt my boyfriend.”
I shoved back the memories of my own kidnapping. Of hands on my arms, fingernails on my skin, a gag shoved in my mouth.
The clang of a pot falling on the tiles, the smash of a plate as I kicked and thrashed.
I hadn’t been quiet.
I’d screamed. I’d fought.
But no one heard me over the din of the music in the pool hall.
I shuddered, forcing my voice to stay level and low. “I’m sorry they hurt your boyfriend.” I shrugged. “Mine doesn’t know where I am.”
“I don’t know if mine is alive.” Her eyes glowed with tears. “He might be dead on the bathroom floor where they beat him.”
She had it worse.
At least my boyfriend had been safe. What had happened to hers after she’d been stolen?
It was the unknown that hurt the most. The not knowing if her boyfriend was alive or if mine was looking for me.
The total uncertainty of our futures, diverted without our permission from the path we’d chosen.
How could another human do this to us? What gave anyone the right to steal us from a life and trap us in the dark with no answers, no comfort, no sign of this nightmare ever ending?
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “Are you okay? You weren’t hurt too badly?”
She sniffed with pain. “I’m fine. Are you okay?” She stepped closer to my bunk, her blonde hair dirty and limp. “You don’t look so good.”
I waved her concern away with a lacklustre smile. “I’m still alive.”
She sighed as if I’d said I was broken beyond repair. “Being alive might be something we’ll end up regretting.”
Other pairs of eyes looked over to us, narrowed with fear and harsh with warning. Silence had been our only companion since I’d been thrown in here two days ago.
This girl had taken that silence and filled it with fight. The food in my hands reminded me that she was right. No matter what they’d done to us, we couldn’t just accept it.
There had to be a way—some way—to stop this.
Without dying in the process.
Tess sighed again, a huff of anger and a puff of despair. “I just want to go home.”
A whisper of agreement filtered around the room.
I nodded. “Me too. All of us do.”
My other companions had trickled in over the past forty-eight hours. Two girls had been here before me, but the others were new, just like this brave Australian girl.
I’d never been much for talking to strangers and preferred silence over conversation, yet she reminded me of a time when things had been so much simpler.
A girl of a similar age. A young woman just embarking on her life after suffering through adolescence and education. We’d earned our freedom, yet these men had killed it before it’d begun.
“They can’t do this.” Tess’s hands curled by her side, crushing the piece of bread she still held.
I nodded again. I opened my mouth to agree.
But really, they could.
They’d taken us, and we had no control.
We could scream and curse and crawl around in the dark for a way out, but in the end…we just had to be patient and hope fate was kind to us and ruthless to them. That karma would be on our side.
No one knew what was in store for us but nasty misery held the truth.
We were theirs.
We could rebel all we wanted and use energy, wishing it wasn’t so…but in the end, the ones who would survive were the ones who waited and watched and learned how to use the monster’s weaknesses against him.
“I’m sorry about your boyfriend,” I murmured. “I’m sorry they took you.” I pulled back into the shadows, curling around the food she’d given me, settling deeper into silence.
* * * * *
“Get up, putas.”
I opened my eyes.
The oppressive blackness was sliced with a wedge of light, spilling through the open door. Two men barred the exit. One had a jagged scar along his cheek, the other an oily leather jacket.
The one with the leather jacket marched straight toward Tess and snatched her off the bottom bunk.
The one with the scar joined in the game, dragging girls off the bottom bunks and yanking legs of the ones on top.
Not waiting for the rude alarm clock to hurt me, I leaped off the top bunk and landed on filthy floorboards.
My denim shorts and lemon t-shirt had long since succumbed to dirt and disgust.
The scarred guy sneered at me, then shoved my shoulder and sent me crashing into the framework of the bunk just because he could.
I gritted my teeth as quiet rage slithered through my chest. A rattlesnake of hatred. I was the girl at school who always played by the rules and made friends with everyone.
I was the one teachers used as a good example. Not because I was perfect but because I’d learned how to play perfect.
I didn’t pick fights or argue trivial matters. I held the enviable position of not being tied to one clique. I hung out with the nerds, the cool kids, the druggies, and the jocks.
I was neutral. I was calm.
But beneath that façade, I was pure emotion.
I didn’t bother wasting energy on petty and pointless things because I knew life hadn’t truly started yet. I’d bided my time.
I’d accepted the delay that school delivered before my life could really start.
And now that it had…now that I didn’t have to be perfect, well…it was personal.
This situation was too dangerous to ignore, and I wasn’t weak enough to accept it.
I wouldn’t stay quiet.
I wouldn’t obey.
My natural instinct was to lash out. To puncture their chests and rip out—
“Let go of me, you bastard!” The blonde girl, Tess, screeched and wriggled in the man’s hold. Her foot kicked his kneecap. I cheered for her. His palm crashed against her cheek. I pitied her.
He dropped her to the floor as if to stomp on her head, but his partner muttered something in Spanish, and he chuckled instead.
Hauling her to her feet, he shoved her through the door, stepping out of the way as more men entered to shepherd the rest of us.
Another girl gave in to the urge to rebel, shouting something in Swedish. A man buried a fist in her belly, sending her crashing to the floor.
Backing away, he left her crumpled at his feet and snarled at us to follow.
I lagged behind the tired, shuffling captives, going as close to the punched girl as I could.
She pushed herself upright on wobbling legs, groaning and wrapping her arms around her middle.
Our eyes connected.
Our voices stayed silent.
We nodded in joint sisterhood.
She had the same instinct.
To stand up.
To say no to injustice.
But there was a time for violence and a time for patience. Only a few could balance the righteous heat with cold calculation.
I shoved that fiery desire to destroy them deep into a heart pumping antifreeze through my blood, granting icy control.
Tess and this other girl didn’t have that trick.
They gave in to the wildness being in a cage caused. They stormed ahead with attitude and hands fisted, painting a target on their backs to be hurt.
Up ahead, Tess refused another order.
She earned a heavy cuff to her head.
A noise of hatred rumbled in my chest.
A swat came for me, but I ducked and kept my eyes on the ground. I didn’t let the monster touch me, but I didn’t look at him. I didn’t goad him into trying again.
Tess tripped but didn’t fall, and together, we all marched where the men commanded.
Passing door after door, I nursed my rage as we finally entered a room that looked transplanted from a jailhouse.
Multiple showerheads all in a line with no privacy or seclusion. Cracked white tiles held yesterday’s dirt and yellowed soap littered the unsanitary floor.
Tess was jerked forward by the man wearing a leather jacket. He laughed and commanded she strip.
She spat in his face.
A gasp sounded down the line of women.
I smothered a groan of despair and winced as the man ploughed a fist into her cheekbone. Most of the girls looked away as the man muttered something, then stripped her.
Ripping off her clothes, destroying any belief that her body was her own.
By the time she stood naked and shivering, her cheek swollen to twice its size and tears trickling unbidden, my control over the lashing, licking fury rattled at its bars.
I wanted to bolt forward and murder the man who’d hurt her.
I wanted a gun to slaughter them all.
I wanted to save these poor women, huddled like little sheep, bleating before the executioner.
I was a swarm of buzzing, pissed-off hornets, and it was so, so hard to swallow back the sting of savagery. Instead, I focused on survival and undressed as men poked and prodded us to obey.
The ritual was symbolic.
Yet another play on our distress.
Take away our clothes—the final pieces of our past, and they’d taken everything. Look at our bare skin and perve at our naked breasts and demote us to nothing more than a toy.
A few girls reached their limit as the jailors leered and reached to sample the weight of a breast or the heat between their legs.
They crumpled to the tiles only to be kicked until they crawled into the showers.
Outwardly, I didn’t move.
My spine stayed straight. My chin held high. My long brown hair kissed above my ass, and my firm breasts belied the racing of my vehemence-filled heartbeat. I didn’t look at them as they looked at me.
I didn’t give them the satisfaction of breaking me just by a stare.
My body was mine.
It didn’t matter they'd taken my clothes or my freedom. As long as breath existed in my lungs and coolant continued to smother the tempestuous hate in my veins, then I was above them.
The guy with the scar wrapped his hand in my hair and forced me to kneel.
He spat as he shouted violent words in a language I didn’t understand.
I kept the glowing hatred far away from showing in my grey eyes. I let him jerk me side to side. I ordered my muscles to go ragdoll with submission and not leap to my feet to destroy him.
Patience was a virtue.
Patience was a gift.
Patience will grant my freedom.
Bored with my aloofness, angry at my non-reaction, the man tossed me into the showers with the other women. Icy rain fell from grimy showerheads, plastering my hair to my shoulders.
My nipples pebbled, and the urge to shiver became unbearable. But shivering was a tell, just like hate was, and I wouldn’t let these men see any reaction from me.
Collecting a bar of soap from the feet of a girl sobbing hysterically, I touched her forearm gently. Her dark eyes latched onto mine, frantic and painfully lost.
I wanted to shelter and shield her, but instead, all I could do was take her hand, press the soap into her palm, and squeeze her fingers gently.
Turning my back on her, I grabbed another lonely soap and scrubbed away the degradation and dirt from the past few days of living in a black hovel, rinsed out my mouth from the rancid aftertaste of no toothbrush, and ensured I was clinically sterile before the man barked for us to stop.
I was the first to step free from the chilly shower, heading toward the bench where a pile of threadbare towels waited haphazardly. They didn’t look laundered.
They smelled musky with a whiff of mould. I schooled my features to show no disgust and wrapped one around my nakedness.
I bent to reach for another to cocoon my dripping hair, but a man stepped behind me. A thick twine slipped over my head. A noose yanked tight against my throat.
Down the line of towel-adorned women, some struggled against their new imprisonment as ropes cinched tight. Some cried out. Some begged.
I just breathed.
A man with black hair popping out the nostrils of his crooked nose leaned in to lick a droplet from my cheek.
I shivered involuntarily.
I stopped it immediately.
My muscles locked. My eyes focused on a place they could not ruin. My ears rang with his nasty promise.
“You not like the others.” Spinning me to face him, jerking the rope so it choked me, he looked me up and down with a leer. “Too good for us, puta?
“You think you safe? That we don’t do pain to you just because you stay quiet?”
The others vanished as I stared deep into his black eyes. He was taller, yet I felt as if I looked down upon him. And in his stare, I said goodbye to everything.
I said farewell to the world travel Scott and I had planned—how we’d only just begun our journey by backpacking through America before flying to Mexico.
We’d met five months ago at a local travel show where tour companies and airlines came together and offered one-of-a-kind discounts.
We were in the line waiting for a veggie burger from one of the food trucks. Before we’d even covered the basic get-to-know-you questions, we knew enough that we would get on.
We were both vegetarians and seeking to explore the planet before forging a career path in whatever would grant us our dreams.
His parents lived in California. My mother lived in London after remarrying an Englishman after my father divorced her for reasons I wasn’t privy to seven years ago.
We clicked enough that we agreed to book two tickets on an adventure instead of one.
Funny how I saw all of that in the eyes of a heartless trafficker. I saw my past, I mourned my loss, and I fortified myself for whatever came next.
When I didn’t reply, the guy cursed under his breath and yanked the leash around my throat. The other women had already been dragged from the shower block.
I followed as if I was a wayward stray, trotting as he jerked me to move quicker to the shuffling crowd up ahead.
The corridor seemed to squeeze around us, giving the sense of being inside a giant snake. We were its prey, cracked and devoured by overwhelming force.
A slur sounded in front. A female shout followed by sharp refusal.
I side-stepped to get a better view just as the guy wearing a leather jacket threw Tess to the ground and relentlessly kicked her. He kicked and kicked until I was sure I witnessed a murder.
She couldn’t survive such abuse.
It happened so fast. So viciously.
The man bent to grab the rope around her throat, tugging it like he expected her to heel. “Get up.”
A feminine groan sounded, barely heard amongst the other cries and moans of the girls who’d witnessed such brutality.
I waited for Tess to stay down. To accept defeat.
But slowly, she stood.
Blood smeared her freshly scrubbed skin, and her eyes blazed with such loathing it licked at my own, encouraging my temper to snarl and claw, desperate to let loose and fight.
But now was not the time to choose carnage over careful obedience.
This was no longer a waiting game to see what would happen. We knew what was happening. We were being trafficked.
We’d been stolen from different lives, stored in darkness, fed by beasts, and now we’d been washed and prepared for sale.
They’d kept us alive this long.
There was a reason.
A reason that came with a fat wallet to buy us and perversions to hurt us.
That was the moment to fear, not this one. That was the time to fight…when the end had finally arrived. These were just the middlemen, and we were worth more to them alive than in pieces.
With my heart pounding beneath the layers of control I clung to, I didn’t say a word as a door was opened and a shove between my shoulder blades pushed me into the depths.
Other doors were opened.
Girls disappeared one by one.
We didn’t say goodbye, and I doubted we’d ever see each other again.
A lock snapped into place behind me.
A man stood beside a chair that looked like it belonged in a dentist’s surgery.
I waited for what came next.
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