Page 16

Author: Pepper Winters


My body clenched. She refused to speak honestly in front of me. How could I trust her with anything she might say in the future?


“No. Don’t put her on!” Zel whisper-yelled, then her shoulders rolled and she went to the corner of the room, trying to get as far away from me as possible. “Hey, sweetheart.”


Sweetheart? Fuck, did she have a lover? What the hell?


“No, I’m okay. Do you think you can be good? Take care of Clue for me?” Her naked shoulder blades hunched as she curled around the phone, almost embracing it. “I miss you, too. But I’ll be home before you know it. Just be safe and don’t get too tired, okay?”


She nodded a few times before whispering so low I almost missed it, “I love you so much. It’s going to be agony not holding you.”


My heart exploded inside my chest. Fuck. What did you expect? That she wouldn’t have anyone at home? Not only was she selling herself to me, she was cheating on someone who undoubtedly loved her.


My hands curled and the rage I’d tried so hard to keep away came back with a vengeance.


She sniffed and hung up. She stayed facing the wall for a moment, before spinning around and stalking toward me. Holding out the phone, her eyes mixed with regret and sadness. Doubt flickered in her gaze before she swallowed, forcing residual emotion from the phone call away.


If I was less of a bastard I could’ve just given her the money and sent her home to whoever she loved. But I wasn’t. So I didn’t.


The thought of her arms around someone else made my stomach roll in anger. “I hope you’re not planning on breaking our agreement so soon. It won’t be that easy to revoke your signature.” My eyes flickered to my desk, already using the contract to bind her to me.


“I’m not backing out.” Her jaw tilted upward defiantly. “But I’m not going to be held hostage either.” Zel shed her tenacious resolve and something heated entered her eyes. “Besides, despite a learning curve of you throwing me to the ground, I enjoyed kissing you. I can think of worse things to do for two hundred thousand dollars.”


My heart thudded, stuttered, then hung confused in my chest. I didn’t know if I should be insulted or grateful. She’d forgiven me entirely for hurting her while putting me in my place once again.


Damn this fucking woman. Who the hell was she?


You just made the worst decision of your life.. There was no way a month would be long enough. She could turn out to be a conniving manipulator, and my cock would still beg for her.


I snapped my fingers and strode toward the door on the other side of the room. “Come on.”


She didn’t ask any questions, only padded barefoot toward me, leaving her shoes on the floor. Her body came within a hair of brushing past mine, and I tensed every muscle I possessed, just in case.


Slinking past, she caught my eye. My balls tightened as I sucked in her scent of Lily of the valley. Every part of me throbbed—it was painful in a way, and so fucking sweet knowing I was minutes away from taking her.


I couldn’t stop the weird palpitations in my chest or the twisting of my gut.


While I was struck dumb, trying to keep a hold on my desire, Hazel headed down the corridor the wrong way.


“This way,” I ordered. “You’ll get used to all the doors.” The house had been built like the establishment I’d been trained in. For some fucked-up reason, even though the place ruined my life, it was the only place I felt truly safe.


We headed down one long corridor with multiple rooms veering from it. No open spaces, apart from the fighting arena downstairs. Each room was private, self-contained, a cell for all intents and purposes.


We didn’t say a word as we walked over the thick black carpet toward the south end of the house.


The corridor led to my private wing. Only Oscar and the occasional cleaner were allowed up here. Pin-pad locks rested on every door, adding more to the prison-like appeal. Shit, Zel would have to learn the combinations to move anywhere in the house.


The repercussions of sharing my life with her finally decided to make themselves known. I hadn’t thought through how my sleeping patterns and habits would affect her. How my needs for certain types of release would freak her the fuck out.


Goddammit, this is a bad idea. Such a bad idea.


My room had a door I’d specially designed. Made out of composite metal, reinforced with rebar, and titanium hinges, it was practically bombproof. It offered some peace of mind that I’d hear them coming if they ever decided my vacation was over and came back for me.


Hazel stood beside me looking perfect, despite her crushed hair, smeared lipstick, and the shadows of bruising on her neck. Her perfection ridiculed me, highlighting once again that I’d never be good enough. That I’d always be who I was.


“Am I sleeping in your room or do I get my own space?” Zel’s melodic voice stayed hushed as if afraid of startling me.


I scowled. “You’ll sleep with me.” Stupid question. “I just made a deal with you to use as I see fit, and you think you’ll have your own space?” I didn’t admit that it would be best if she did. I made promises I couldn’t keep. I knew I’d end up hurting her. “This isn’t a vacation, dobycha, more like a sentence.”


Her forehead furrowed slightly. “Let’s just get something straight. I’m here willingly. I signed your stupid piece of paper; I agreed to let you take me however you want, within reason. You don’t have to keep dropping hints about sentences and making it sound like I’ll regret this.”


Her hand came up to land on my chest but I lurched backward. She shook her head. “Sorry. I forgot. I was going to say, if you fuck me like you kissed me, I won’t regret spending the month in your bed. What I will regret is killing you if you break your promise that I’m safe.”


I laughed coldly. “You think you can kill me?” The absurdity of such a notion. Not even a highly-trained swat team could dispatch me—I knew—they’d tried once or twice.


Zel leaned forward, bringing a cloud of floral air. “You’re forgetting that by sharing a bed with me, I’ll have full access to you while you sleep.” Her voice dropped to a husky whisper, “Sleeping with someone is a huge admittance of trust. If I wanted to hurt you I’m the only one close enough when you’re at your weakest to do so.”


Shit. Shit. Shit.


How did she know I’d avoided sleeping with another because of that same fear?


I wanted to wring her neck for her implied threat all while contemplating how to avoid such an inevitability. Lowering my head, I growled, “Thank you for pointing out yet another hole in this arrangement. I’ll make sure to rectify it.”


Her eyes popped wide.


Focusing on the keypad lock, I stabbed the combination. “The code is 11453. You’ll need to remember that if I send you back here without me.”


She nodded. Her heart-shaped face and flawless complexion glowed beneath the corridor lights. Her lips moved silently, committing the code to memory.


Swinging the door wide, I let her enter first.


Automatic sensors switched on, spilling illumination from two bedside lamps and subtle lighting around artwork and sculptures. Just like my office, the entire space was black. Again, not a matter of choice, but necessity. Drilled into me by a past I couldn’t shake. It was ironic that I hated the dark, yet surrounded myself in it.


Zel gravitated toward a sculpture. Reaching out to touch it, I held my breath as her inquisitive fingertips caressed the brutalized metal. I’d finished it only a few days ago. It wasn’t anything special. Just a hunk of metal that I’d welded and twisted and deformed.


Along with the iron, bronze, and silver, it also held my blood and sweat.


I fed my designs with everything that I was—including the stuff flowing in my veins. In a way, it made me immortal—morphing me into pieces of metal—hopefully finding peace by hardening my heart just like the statues.


“You mentioned Oscar did the fox mural. Who did the sculptures?” Zel twisted to look at me, her eyes green diamonds in the gloom. “Whoever did these has a heart-breaking story to tell. They’re full of pain.” Her voice dropped to a murmur. “Did you do them?”


My spine tickled with equal parts gratefulness and utter rage. Grateful because I’d finally found someone who saw past who I portrayed, and rage because she made me frustrated and weak— showing just how fucking messed up I was.


“If you can see all that; do you really need an answer?” I snapped, stalking toward the bed.


Zel followed me with her eyes, stroking the twisted piece. “No. I don’t need an answer.” She removed her fingers, looking at the hunk of metal wistfully. “It tells me more about you than you ever will. It redeems you in a way, enough that I can overlook your surly assholeness.”


I ignored that.


Watching her carefully, I kept my muscles on a tight leash, just in case she triggered another relapse. Drifting from one statue to another, she kept surprising me by only showing interest in the deformed pieces. Humans were taught to run from imperfection. She should've been interested in the perfectly designed and flawlessly executed wolf sitting on the sideboard, but she wasn’t. She couldn’t care less, and I didn’t know what to make of that.


She turned to face me, taking in the room as she did so. She didn’t look like she wanted to run or try to fix me. She accepted the scar as if it hadn’t damaged me, as if it just…was.


Acceptance.


Something wrenched painfully in my chest, dragging foreign emotions from depths I didn’t understand.


I was right about her. She was magical—casting a spell over me, entwining me deeper into her web.


I suddenly had an overwhelming urge for pain. I needed it. I thirsted for it. Only pain would help me see clearly again.


Giving me a small smile, she moved silently toward the bed. Black sheets, black covers. Everything black. I wasn’t comfortable in any other colour. I deserved no other colour. Black was the colour of evil, of death. Black was me.


The room was large. A seating area existed to the right, a bathroom to the left, and a huge bed on a raised platform in the centre. The bed looked like it’d come straight from a haunted forest. Wrought iron and bronze had been hammered into the illusion of branches and twigs, cocooning the bed in eager ghostlike trees.


The instant Zel sat on the mattress and looked across the room, I knew I’d made a big fucking mistake.


I couldn’t sleep next to this woman. I would kill her.


I couldn’t let her touch me. I would maim her.


I was a fucking idiot to think otherwise.


It wasn’t a matter of if or how or maybe. It was as certain as the motto engraved on my doorstep. As rigid and unyielding as the conditioning I drowned in.


Thou shall steal life because that is thine only purpose.


My only purpose. The only reason why I was still alive.


Curling my hands, I backed toward the exit. “Stay there. Don’t leave the room.”


Zel sat up, her mouth opened in question, but I didn’t wait.


Striding out the door, I left, locking her inside.


My haven was a bunker buried amongst the foundations of the house. Here I could relax—as much as I could—and generally pretend the rest of the world and my problems didn’t exist.


I breathed deeply as I unlocked the door and entered the familiar space. Smells of metal shavings, tools, and the stench of grease and paraffin welcomed me back. It was basic, rudimentary, but it fit me better than any of the grandeur upstairs.


I wasn’t carved from money and gold. I was carved from ice and stone. I’d slept in a pit more nights than I slept in a bed all because I’d been chosen.


They say chosen. I say stolen.


Having a place like this underground with its unfinished walls and low ceilings gave me a respite—gave me a den.


Shoving aside a half-finished statue of a decapitated woman, I tried to remove Hazel from my mind.

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