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Alone. Free. At peace.

Now she would never be free.

The trunk opened, and through the thin fabric over her eyes, she saw a shadow lean over her. She recoiled, instinct driving her to squirm as far away as possible. But the space didn’t allow for much movement. Her bare back hit the carpeted rear of the trunk.

His hands closed around her arms. He pulled her forward and scooped her under her knees and back. Grunting, he hoisted her over the lip of the trunk and dropped her into a container of some kind. The skin of her side and arm hit wet, cold metal. The pain in her neck exploded. Her vision dimmed and her body went limp. Her legs dangled over the side, the rim digging into the back of her knees. A wheel squeaked as she lurched into motion.

A wheelbarrow?

They stopped. A door opened and closed. She jolted as they moved forward again. Terror drove her heart to pound faster, as if she were still running away. As if she still had a chance.

Where was she?

She strained to hear anything above the slamming echo of her own pulse. Her fear and pain were deafening.

She held her breath for a few seconds, then forced her lungs to expand slowly, drawing air deep into her belly. If she meditated long enough, she could make her muscles relax and chase the pain into a corner. But there was no relaxing in the face of her current situation.

The wheelbarrow squeaked onward, tipping forward as if descending a ramp. They went down and down, seemingly into the bowels of the Earth.

Another door opened. Rough hands lifted her from the wheelbarrow and deposited her on what felt like cold tile. Fingers at her throat loosened the tie, and he yanked the pillowcase hood from her head.

An overhead light blinded her.

A quiet voice sent fresh horror sliding through her veins. “We’ve been over this before, but I’ll repeat myself. If you resist, I will hurt you. As you know, I am a man who keeps my word.”

He stared at the woman on the tile. Her naked body was covered in mud, bits of wet grass, and dead leaves. Tears ran in clean streaks down her filthy face. Mucus leaked from her nose.

Disgust curled inside him. “You are a dirty, dirty girl.”

She’d been clean when he’d taken her from the shower. Well, she could just as easily be clean again. With a gloved hand, he turned on the faucet. Old pipes groaned. Water rained down on her, and mud sluiced from her bony frame. A few droplets bounced off the tile and onto the legs of his coveralls.

She was pale and thin-skinned. Makeup and clothes usually gave her an attractive outward appearance, but without the commercial beauty trappings, her true ugliness shone through her facade. She had no fat over her bones. Blue veins streaked across her body and the outline of her ribs was clearly visible. If he hadn’t known better, he’d think she was a corpse.

This was the real Dena.

Pathetic. Weak. Deceptive. She was no better than the rest.

How would she handle the test he’d designed for her?

A sob seeped out from behind the gag in her mouth. Her eyes pleaded.

“I told you what would happen if you didn’t cooperate. You’ve given me no choice. It’s all your own fault.” Grabbing the showerhead, he lifted it from its hook to better direct the spray. Sturdy nylon rope bound her ankles and wrists, making it difficult for her to worm away from the cold water.

He’d learned his lesson tonight. Missy had been more compliant, but then she’d broken quickly. Perhaps Dena would be harder to crack. Excitement hummed in his blood. Would she be The One? So far, his efforts had provided nothing but disappointment. But he’d known from the first time he’d seen Dena that she was strong.

He chased her with the spray until she hit the corner and curled into a fetal position. Goose bumps erupted over her skin as the freezing water beat down on her.

“You should have thought of the consequences before you escaped, but you never think of the consequences of your actions, do you?”

She would learn all about repercussions now.

Pale pink colored the water as some dried blood washed from her nose. She closed her eyes as he rinsed blood and dirt from her face. He returned the showerhead to its hook and wheeled a janitor’s mop and rolling bucket onto the tile. Soapy water churned as he loaded the mop. He brought it around and began to wash her.

“This is going to take all day,” he chastised.

But there was no help for it. He would have none of that filth under his roof, and with the resilience she’d shown, she might be here for a while.

“I can’t believe you made me chase you through the storm. What if I hadn’t found you?” But he supposed that had been her intention, hadn’t it?

Seemingly resigned to her fate, she lay still, shivering.

She deserved no pity. She was the one who refused to comply with his polite requests. He hoped she hadn’t run out of fight. She’d need to be tough for what he had planned.

“Why is ‘If you don’t cooperate, I’ll hurt you’ so hard to understand?” His voice rose with his temper.

Some people never fucking learned.

He moved down her body, suds gathering around her on the tiles.

“Turn over.”

She didn’t move.

“I said turn over.”

When she didn’t respond, he set down his cleaning implements, grabbed her feet, and flipped her body. She flopped and twitched as she resumed her fetal position on the opposite side.

The bottoms of her feet were stained dark greenish brown. He applied more pressure to the mop. The grass and mud stains refused to yield. He traded the mop for a scrubbing brush. She whimpered as he leaned into the strokes. Anger leant strength to his arm, and the stains slowly faded, revealing small cuts she must have sustained during her flight though the woods.

She deserved every wound.

He turned his attention to her hands, making sure to clean thoroughly under her nails. She’d managed to scratch his back when he’d put her in a fireman carry. He’d have to clip her nails tomorrow just to be sure none of his DNA remained.

A final rinse sent the suds scurrying down the drain. Satisfied that she was clean, he turned off the water and moved her to a tarp. Leaving her to air-dry, he dumped his bucket and used the mop to scour the tiles until no trace of her presence remained. Then he sprayed the shower down with bleach and rinsed it again.

Finished, he turned to her. She was curled on her side. Her body was still, but her gaze followed him. He breathed deeply, welcoming calm into his lungs and exhaling his anger. Such a wasteful emotion. Its energy was better spent on action.

“I really wish you’d behaved,” he sighed.

She inched away from him as best she could, but her bound arms at the base of her spine limited her mobility, just as he’d planned. He reached for her. Her chest heaved, and her eyes widened.

He yawned. It was almost dawn. He hadn’t gotten any sleep last night, and today would be a busy day as well. He and Dena had work to do.

Her body shifted from shivering to trembling. Fear paled her skin to the color of bleached grout. She sobbed.

An ounce of pity trickled through him. Yes, she was worse than worthless, but was that really her fault? Perhaps her weakness had been determined from her birth. Was it her gender that encouraged sin? No, he refused to believe that Eve’s original disobedience predestined all women to sin. But then what made one person strong and another weak?

That was the million-dollar question, wasn’t it?

“As I promised in the very beginning, if you don’t cooperate, I will hurt you. And if you’ve only learned one thing from last night’s experience, it’s that I never break my promises. I am a man of my word.”

She turned away.

He grabbed her jaw and forced her to face him. “There will be no more running away. You and I have work to do. It’s going to be a busy day.”

How long would it take to find her weaknesses and exploit them? He cleaned the wheelbarrow and then carted her to the cell Missy had vacated. Hopefully Dena would be a guest for much longer. Excitement energized him as he formulated a plan. What would they do first? He’d let her rest a while before he began her first challenge. It was only fair that she go into the test fresh. He had to give her every opportunity to prove she was worthy. That she was The One he sought.

That she didn’t need to die.

Chapter Twelve

Mac’s hand gripped the knife as his bedroom door opened fully and a man stepped into the dim light. Grant. Mac’s lungs expelled the breath he’d been holding.

“Shit, Grant. Don’t surprise me like that.” He dropped his knife back into his nightstand drawer. “I was ready to spear you.”

His brother filled the doorway. Grant might have left the military for civilian life, but good food and the manual labor in his new contracting business had added muscle to his frame. He crossed his arms over his chest and glared down at Mac.

“How about answering your cell? I called six times.” Grant’s gaze dropped to the bandage on Mac’s side. “And what the hell happened to you?” His voice rose.

Mac rubbed his face. “We need to talk.”

“You bet we do.” Grant walked closer, his blue eyes full of frustration.

Mac held up a hand in surrender. “I got in late, and it’s not even dawn. I need a shower and some coffee before I’m up for any damned sharing session.”

Stopping, Grant gave him a serious nod. “All right. But you’d better hurry. Hannah’s in the kitchen, and she’s pissed.”

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