Sunlight was streaming through the hotel room blinds when Sylvia opened her eyes, moaning with dismay when she realised that the moisture on her cheek was her own drool. Girls in films always sleep beautifully, she thought ruefully, you never see Kate Hudson waking up in a puddle of her own spit. I hope whoever buys me tonight doesn't want me to sleep over. The sudden realisation of where she was made her sit bolt upright, almost afraid to look at the large red digits on that infernal clock on the night stand. When she did, she wished she hadn't. She had exactly one hour to shower, dress, do her make-up, pack, check out of the hotel and find the bus depot.
So frantic was Sylvia to get ready in time to make the bus that she didn't have a moment spare to worry about what would happen once she reached the infamous Castle resort. Nor had she had time for a coffee, so she was especially delighted when she not only arrived at the depot with ten minutes to spare, but noticed the Starbucks sign across the road. Without thinking twice, she dashed over to the café, emerging five minutes later armed with an extra-large cappuccino with one sugar.
The bus, when it arrived, looked perfectly normal. Like any old bus, going to any old destination. And the people boarding it looked perfectly normal as well. A few of them smiled kindly at Sylvia, and even though she was usually painfully shy, she found herself smiling back. Still, she was glad when she found a seat near the back of the bus and was able to cower against the window, still clutching her coffee, relieved beyond belief that no-one had actually tried to talk to her.
Rosa had told her that the ride from the Granger bus station to the Castle was a short one, but to Sylvia it felt entirely too short. Staring at the backs of the other passengers' heads, she found herself wondering how many of them—if any—were going to be up on the auction block themselves that very night. Or, God forbid, would be bidding on her. That thought made her face hot, so she sank even further down in the seat, trying ineffectually to concentrate on the beautiful landscape.
Please, please, she prayed silently, let Rosa be there to meet me. Let me get through the next few days in one piece and I promise I'll never, ever do anything this foolish again.
Even though her friend had told her all about the Castle, Sylvia couldn't help but be awed by the enormous medieval structure as the bus trundled up and came to a halt at the front gate. Her nerves were temporarily forgotten as she gazed and gazed at the stone edifice, trying to picture what Rosie had told her—that the entire fifteenth century building had been disassembled stone by stone in Scotland, then shipped to America and reassembled in the lush green Ohio countryside. She simply couldn't imagine the scale of such a project, and her awe increased with every step she took, following the others, first over the drawbridge—the moat was filled with expensive Koi, she noticed—and then under the huge wrought iron portcullis. It was like being transported back in time. Then again, she supposed, that was the point.
Clutching her empty coffee cup in one hand and her handbag in the other, she saw that all the other passengers were veering to some tables set up on the left of the portcullis and forming orderly queues, stacks of paperwork in their hands. This must be the admissions process, she guessed, remembering what she had read in the instructions she had received.
Sure enough, once it was her turn, she was asked for her medical records and waiver. Rummaging through her bag, she found the appropriate forms and put them on the table, receiving a new envelope full of paperwork in return.
"Thank you," the assistant said, with a friendly smile. "Please take your welcome pack and make your way over to the dais—feel free to take a seat if there are any spare. We're always frantically busy when it's a special event like this one. You'll need to go back over your intake form and sign and initial everything. Oh, and before I forget, are you taking part in tonight's auction?"
Sylvia nodded, too overwhelmed to speak.
"Then you'll be needing this." An additional cream envelope was handed to her. "Feel free to put it on as soon as you get changed; this will help everyone who is bidding to identify that you're up for sale. Have a wonderful time. Next!"
You are twenty-eight years old, Sylvia told herself furiously. You are not some tongue-tied teenage virgin who's never gone to the dance. This is supposed to be your treat to yourself to celebrate getting out of a stale marriage, so stop blushing and stammering and bloody well enjoy yourself!
She lifted her chin, squared her shoulders, and made her way over to the small stage near the front steps, where a crowd of people had already gathered. The coffee cup was still in her left hand, and she looked around for a dustbin, but couldn't see one. Hoping there'd be one in her room, she slid it into her handbag for the time being, moved to stand behind the chairs and waited for whatever was about to happen, her eyes still scanning the crowd for a sign of her friend.
Once everyone had been given their welcome packs and made their way over to the stage, a woman appeared and gave a brief lecture on the rules and regulations of the Castle, reiterating the universal safeword, 'onion', and reminding everyone that under no circumstances were gags to be used in any play session, unless a special permit had been applied for and granted. So everyone will hear me scream, Sylvia thought wryly. On the other hand, she wasn't a huge fan of gags anyway. Being forced to pull a face like the colourful Koi in the moat whilst drooling all over her own chest was not the sort of humiliation she enjoyed.
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