However, it was almost too good to be true. She couldn’t fathom what compelled him to invite her. She was not an eye-catching woman; the beauty of her youth was long past, leaving her non-descript at best. She was softly spoken and never raised a fuss, preferring to live quietly under the radar. He had never paid attention to her before, and yet here she was, standing at the front door of his mansion. Surely, the invitation had a hidden agenda, a thought which kept her from announcing her arrival.
Collecting herself, she juggled the dish under one arm and rapped at the door. Immediately, it was pulled open by a solemn-looking man in an impeccable black suit, who nodded briskly at her and ushered her into the foyer. ‘The Leader is waiting for you in the drawing room, Sister.’
‘Thank you.’ She apprehensively stepped through the doorway, blinking as the pristine beauty of the house hit her in full force. The wide hallway sparkled a brilliant white, and led on to a spacious room with a tall, lavish domed ceiling. The floors had been polished to shining perfection, and luxurious tapestries lined the walls. A large fountain sat in the middle of the room, streams of water trickling over an elegant statue of a naked woman.
The whole thing struck her as slightly superfluous; but then, who was she to judge the ways of the wealthy?
‘This way, Sister.’ The butler’s rasping voice startled her from her reverie, and she hurried along behind him. He steered her through another doorway, into a room smaller than the first, but no less splendid. The Leader was seated on a plush cream couch, sipping thoughtfully at a glass of golden liquid.
‘My Leader, your guest has arrived.’
He looked up and smiled, gesturing at the sofa opposite to himself. ‘Welcome, Sister. Sit, please.’ His eyes drifted to the casserole dish, and his expression shifted to one of mild disgust. ‘What is that?’
A hot flush spread over her cheeks. ‘Oh, well, I just thought that, well, never go to a party empty handed…’
He glanced at the butler. ‘Take it away.’
The servant bowed slightly, and removed the offending object from his presence. Satisfied, the Leader sank back into his chair, smiling at her again. ‘There is no need for that here, my dear woman. I pride myself on taking very good care of my guests. Speaking of which, we will be joined by the other guests later.’ He took another sip, and gestured at the glass. ‘Care for a drink?’
‘Oh, yes, please.’
He stood and strode briskly over to the bar. ‘What’ll you have?’
‘Oh, the same as you, I guess.’ The cool amber liquid looked enticing.
‘Excellent choice.’ He presented her with the drink, the ice cubes clinking gently against the glass. She nodded gratefully, and brought the glass to her lips. ‘Ugh.’ She grimaced at the bitter taste, coughing as the drink burned her throat. He chuckled as she wiped her mouth. ‘Never had Scotch before, I see.’
‘Scotch?’ She glanced up in surprise. ‘This is alcoholic?’
‘Indeed it is.’
‘But… But you said…’
‘That alcohol is the tool of the Devil?’ He smirked, and leaned closer to her. ‘My dear, rules are made to be broken.’
She blushed again, taking another quick sip of her drink. ‘Of course. My apologies, my Leader.’
‘It’s fine, Sister.’ He reached over, and grasped her hand firmly between his. ‘There is something I have to talk to you about.’
‘Yes, my Leader?’
‘It has come to my attention that…’ He paused, his confident demeanour failing him. A heavy silence fell between the pair, before he abruptly pulled away and got to his feet. He paced the room restlessly, wringing his hands, before his fearful whisper broke the silence.
‘I’m dying, Sister.’
‘Oh…’ She bit her lip, unsure of how to comfort the powerful man who stood helpless before her.
‘It’s cancer. Lung cancer. With the right treatment, I may live to see another few years. But that’s not long enough. All I’ve toiled for, all I’ve strived to achieve, will be wasted. It’ll be handed over to a man who cares nothing about my vision, who’ll ruin everything.’ He sank back into his chair, taking a large gulp of his drink.
‘I’m sure that’s not true…’
He stared listlessly into his Scotch, his eyes watery with grief. ‘I can’t lose them. They are all mine.’
‘You’ll go to God, my Leader, and reign with him for eternity. Isn’t that a far better place to lead your flock than down on this tainted world?’
He laughed harshly. ‘God? What God? There is no God, Sister. God is a device for the weak and the ignorant, something for them to hold onto, to hide behind. They need somebody like me to lead them, to save them from themselves.’
‘Don’t be foolish, my Leader.’
‘Oh, come now, Sister. You cannot seriously say that you believe in that utter rubbish?’
She fell back into silence. No, of course she didn’t believe in it. At least, not in a God that would lock her away from her former life. From her loved ones, her career, her name...
‘Don’t try to hide the truth from me, Sister. I know you don’t want to be here.’ She nodded slightly, avoiding eye contact. He could destroy her for saying such a thing. And yet, when she glanced at him fearfully, he did not look angered; instead, he was gazing at her thoughtfully, gently tapping his fingers against the arm of his chair. ‘I have a proposition for you, my dear.’
‘Yes, my Leader?’
‘I need an heir, and a wife that can give me one. If I cannot have my followers all to myself, at least I can keep them in the family.’
And then, she understood. A wave of confidence swept through her, and she looked him boldly in the eye. ‘You want her.’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘She doesn’t want you.’
A pained looked briefly cross his face. ‘No, but if you can convince her I can make it worth your while.’
She narrowed her eyes. ‘How so?’
‘You’ll become a part of my family, and an elder in the church. You and your daughters will live in luxury, and you’ll have privileges that the other members can only dream of.’
‘I’ll consider it.’
‘No, you’ll do it. Don’t forget, Sister, that I am still your Leader.’
‘I’m glad we have reached an agreement, my dear woman.’
‘As am I, my Leader.’ She stood up briskly, arranging her clothing and gathering her wits. ‘If you don’t mind, I’ll leave now. I have a lot to think about, and I don’t particularly want to socialise.’ She dropped into a slight curtsey. ‘I’ll come again when I make my decision.’
‘Of course.’ He took her arm, and swiftly escorted her to the front door. ‘Oh, and Sister, this deal comes with one condition.’
‘Bring me that book.’