Page 48

Author: Pepper Winters

Such a simple thing, but it changed my world.

The first time I’d hugged anyone since Vasily.

The first time I’d allowed anyone to hug me back.

“Tell me why you’re naked, operative.”

I hung my head, avoiding looking at my dangling cock. “Because I fell asleep with no clothes on, sir.”

“And now you’ll preform the mission with no protection while your white ass glows for your victim to see. You’re a prime target. I doubt you’ll make it back alive tonight.”

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”

The rest of the cadets looked at me with a mix of smugness and pity. Six of us had been selected for tonight’s mission. All of them wore black. Everyone but me.

The commander presented us with our customary hunting knife, half-moon blades, and gun with silencer. He pointed toward the awaiting van that would drive us to the kill site.

I fumbled with the three weapons. With no place to store, I had to figure out a way to hold them.

My handler smirked. “You were always too bold, Fox. Tonight you’ll learn the hard way.”

And he was right.

That night I was shot in my ass running away from the security guards of the diplomat I’d murdered. His blood covered my bare skin, mingling with my own from the bullet wound.

Vasily was the one who helped clean and dress my wound. Only eight-years-old, but adapt at triage already.

Never again did I sleep naked. I would never make that mistake twice.

I shot upright, blinking, panicking.

No light.

Nothing but compressing, smothering darkness.

My eyes flew to the window where the stars and moon mocked me. You fell asleep before the sun was here to protect you. It’s our turn to make you suffer.

I fell backward, screaming as the memory of killing my brother—the one I tried so hard to avoid—crashed over me with a tidal wave of misery.

“Roan. Please—” Vasily’s face was streaked with tears, his nose streaming with mucus. My handler marched beside me, digging a cattle prod into my side while I dragged my baby brother along with a hard grip around his neck.

“Let me go. I promise I won’t say anything. I promise, Roan.”

My black heart had died back at the training camp, and my eyes were dry as a bone.

I knew where we were going, and I knew I would die beside my brother—either tonight or tomorrow or the day after. It didn’t matter. We were both doomed.

The moment we arrived at the pit, my handler pressed the trigger and sent a huge bolt of electricity through my body. My fingers locked involuntarily around Vasily’s neck, and we plummeted to the floor of the three metre deep pit.

My body weight crushed Vasily’s leg, breaking it in two places. His wails and screams scared wolves and owls far away from our grave.

They left us there for three days.

Starving, freezing, huddling together for warmth and catching snowflakes on our tongue for hydration, Vasily grew weaker every day. His lungs rattled with liquid, coughing and rasping with pneumonia.

Even if by some miracle I found a way out of there, he would die anyway.

So I did the only thing I could for my brother.

I kissed his cheeks and tasted his tears and we hugged goodbye with promises of finding each other in another life.

And then I broke his neck.

The crack of his spine heralded my handler as if he’d been waiting all along.

They hauled me out and patted my back and walked me back as a hero.

“Fox! Fox! Roan! Wake up!”

I jolted awake again, sucking down huge gulps of oxygen. My heart raced as if I’d been drowning, my eyes wild as I looked around the room. Zel had turned on a false sun in the form of a bedside light.

I’d done two things I swore I would never do again: fall asleep naked and sleep with no sunlight.

My skin crawled, and I lurched backward, crushing the pillows against the headboard.

Zel held out her hand, fear and sorrow misting her eyes.

I looked to her hand and shook my head. “Don’t touch me. I can’t guarantee I’ll be safe.” My voice was hoarse as if I’d been screaming in my sleep.

Her arm dropped and she plucked the sheet covering her legs. Her naked breasts glowed with warmth from the small bedside light.

I needed silence, and I needed time. Time to put myself back together.

I hated that Zel had seen me weak. Seen how truly fucked up my brain was. I frowned as panic clenched my heart. “I didn’t say anything—did I?”

She’ll never trust me around Clara if she knows what I did to Vasily.

She shook her head. “You spoke in gibberish or Russian. All I heard was your brother’s name, but that’s it.”

Fisting my hands, I forced my body to relax. She didn’t know the worst of it—she would never know how many children I’d been forced to dispatch. I would take that secret with me to my grave.

Minutes ticked past as we stayed on opposite sides of the bed. Zel didn’t say a word, but her eyes yelled never-ending questions in my direction. Every part of my body wanted to get up, to punch something, to fight.

My eyes dropped to my scarred torso. Every burn, every punishment mocked me and I couldn’t stay naked another minute. I felt too exposed, too vulnerable, too weak.

Black. I need black.

Throwing my legs over the side of the bed, I went to stand, but Zel murmured, “Wait. I’ll help you.” She crawled toward me, ignoring the sheet twisting around her legs. “Lie on your stomach.”

My heart exploded. “You think you can touch me?” I shook my head violently. “Not going to happen. I—”

Zel kept advancing. “You’re close to breaking. Let me push you. Lie down, Roan.” Her voice danced with coaxing and commands.

I didn’t want to obey; I didn’t know how much I could tolerate, but if she was right, it might mean I could be free.

When I didn’t move, her face twisted into sadness. Her hand fell to her stomach protectively, her gaze turning inward. For one insane, wild moment, I imagined her carrying my child. Giving me redemption in the form of a new life. Granting me immortality in the form of my own creation. Her voice was barely a whisper. “This is important. You need to do this.”

The brutal honesty snapped my willpower and I muttered, “I broke the chain.” My eyes searched for the ruined silver gleaming amongst the black bedspread.

Without a word, Zel got up and strode naked to the end of the bed. Scooping up my trousers, she tore the belt from the loops and held it up. It looked like a snake—a snake about to sink its fangs into my flesh and poison me to death.

My breath rattled as she came toward me.

“I know you need this, but I don’t have the strength. Don’t ask me to do this.”

Her forehead furrowed and a harsh glint entered her green eyes. “You promised me you’d be safe around Clara, but you almost lost it in your office. I need to make sure that doesn’t happen again.” Holding the belt in two hands, she presented the taut length to me. “Put your hands together.”

Scenarios of hitting her, striking her, and running out the door filled my brain. I didn’t want to fall over the edge. I didn’t want to succumb to the rage and pain of the conditioning. I didn’t know what existed on the other side. What if my mind exploded—what if I couldn’t cope?

What if I kill her?

One day you will if you don’t break it.

The thought compelled my hands forward, and I rested my joined wrists over the loop of the belt. Without a word, Zel wrapped the leather twice around my hands before securing the buckle tightly.

Leaning down, she kissed me ever so gently on the corner of my mouth. “Lie down. Focus on me.”

I obeyed. Sliding up the bed, I hesitantly pressed my chest against the sheets. The moment I was horizontal with my bound hands above my head, I wanted to roar with rage. I hated she’d put me in such a compromising position. I hated being at someone’s mercy yet again.

Silently, Zel climbed beside me before throwing a leg over my hip and straddling me. The softness of her ass against the small of my back was the first sharp shock to my system. My hands curled as the familiar urges built behind my eyes.

Her hands landed on my shoulders, grasping hard, digging into muscle.

The urge behind my eyes spread to my teeth and jaw and spine. I went from frozen to trembling with deep-seated aggression.

Kill. Sever. Devour.

I groaned, pressing my face harder into the mattress.

“I won’t hurt you. I’m here. I’m with you,” Zel murmured, all the while massaging my shoulders with a firm mind-splintering touch.

The brainwashing spread fast until every muscle locked, writhing with the need to obey the simple decree to kill.

“Close your eyes,” she demanded.

Was she insane?

“I can’t. All I see is death and mutilation. If I close my eyes, I’ll be consumed by darkness. I need to focus. I need to focus on the light and you and this room.”

Zel didn’t say anything as she smoothed her hands from my shoulders to the centre of my back. “You have to give yourself to me for this to work. You have to be completely at my mercy. No holding back. If it gets too much to bear, tell me and I’ll add more restraints.” Her voice wobbled, but then strengthened. “You have to tell me if it gets too much. I won’t let you hurt me again.”

I nodded, the sound of fabric from the bedspread loud in my ear. The shooting pain of disobedience darted through my body. Gritting my teeth, I rode through it, trying so hard to do what Zel said and let myself go.

The silence rushed with the voices of my handlers.

Why are you disobeying a direct order, operative?

She’s inflicting you, therefore you must inflict back.

Sweat broke out on my brow as Zel’s hands dropped further. Her hand landed on my ass and my back arched in surprise. “Stop—” I growl-panted, my skin scorching with unrequited orders.

“No,” she whispered. Meticulously, she traced a finger from the crack in my ass upward to the base of my spine. Deliberately taunting me with a mixture of firm and soft, prohibited and allowed.

“You spilled some of your secrets today. I loved hearing more about you even though your past is so sad. Focus on my voice as I touch you. Try and relax. Try not to fight and I’ll tell you some of mine.” Her hand splayed on my spine, massaging the tortured muscles below.

A headache swelled, throbbing with my rapidly beating heart.

Kill her, Fox.

We won’t command again.

Her fingers feathered over the fox tattoo on the base of my spine. “I’ll start with my necklace. I’ve seen you looking at it—the star. The single silver star.” Her voice turned wistful, full of happy memories. “I bought two necklaces with my meagre savings the day Clara turned four. She was obsessed by all things galaxy and drew stars on everything she could get her hands on.”

Her fingers continued their maddening assault, calling more conditioning, more pain. I glued my lips together and bore through it.

“I bought her the necklaces for her birthday. Her face lit up as if she’d swallowed the moon. Her tiny hands tickled my neck as we took turns clasping them on each other. The moment they were on, she announced she would never take it off. She’s my star in more ways than one.” She sighed, her voice turning sad. “I bought the necklaces for another reason, too. But that isn’t a tale for tonight.”

My brain skipped between her voice and the inner commands only I could hear. It took all my willpower to focus on the present and stay lying flat.

It would be so easy to flip her off.

Her neck will snap if you use your legs around her throat.

Zel continued, fingertips pressing deep into never before massaged flesh. “I’ve had so many jobs I can’t remember them all—most of them weren’t legal. I bounced from foster family to foster family, always an outcast. I thought the world hated me—that I’d be forever alone, but then I learned I could create the life I wanted by lying.”