“I know it’s hard. I know.” Renee’s voice broke through my shadowy thoughts.

“You know? No, you don’t.” I slid my fingers away from her, out of her warm grip.

She knelt by my bed, getting at eye level with me.

“I do, Stella.”

No you don’t.

“How? Have you been branded and whipped? Have you had a year of your life stolen? Have you had to endure a man like Vinemont?” My tears were flowing, making slight plops onto the pillow beneath me.

Renee’s dark eyes were troubled, a storm seeming to rage in her breast. She took a deep breath, as if she had come to a decision. She began unbuttoning her black shirt, her fingers nimble. Then she turned and swept her hair away from her nape. There in the stark green and black was the same ‘V’ that had been seared into me in ink.

She pulled her top down further so I could see the beginnings of lash marks crisscrossing her fair skin.

“What—”

“I was Mrs. Sinclair’s Acquisition twenty years ago.” She faced me again, her frank gaze disarming me.

If she had hit me, I couldn’t have been more stunned. A million questions tumbled through my mind, one building on the next before stumbling in front of an even bigger curiosity. Why would she stay? What had her year been like? Could she help me?

She stood and refastened her top. When she moved to step away from me, I reached for her. The pain shot like lightning down my back. It went so deep I wondered if my heart hadn’t somehow been lashed right along with my skin. I screamed and dropped my head.

“I’ll get the doctor. Don’t move, sweet Stella. Please don’t.” She rushed from the room.

My mind spun with revelations and harsh sensations. Renee had known all along. She knew what would happen to me at the ball. Why didn’t she warn me? Vinemont’s words came back to me—the more I knew, the more afraid I would be, and the more it all would hurt.

A dark figure rushed through the door, Renee sweeping in behind. Before I could protest—did I want to protest?—he fiddled with my IV and I was out.

This time I dreamed. Vinemont was in there in all of them—tormenting me or loving me. Were they one and the same? Then my father was sitting in his favorite chair telling me a story, though I couldn’t hear the words. Finally, my mother arrived, her hair up in the messy bun I remembered. She was sad. Always sad. Water flowed from her mouth and then it changed to blood, more blood than a person could lose and still live. She was drowning in the very thing that gave her life. I couldn’t save her. I couldn’t even save myself. I sat in a pool of my own blood, the droplets slowing right along with my heartbeat. Steps in the hallway—my father. I dreaded him finding me before it was over. I didn’t want him to see me die. The footsteps grew louder and then stopped.

“Stella?”

I knew that voice. It wasn’t my father’s. It was the voice of a demon, one that made me burn with desire and hate until both emotions mixed in a funeral pyre of black smoke.

I opened my eyes. He was here. Vinemont.

“Going to hit me again?” It came out as a whisper, but he winced as if I’d yelled at him.

“I don’t know.”

I was still lying on my stomach. My eyes finally adjusted to the dark. He sat near the door, his face unshaven, his clothes wrinkled and disheveled. He looked like I felt.

“What sort of an answer is that?”

“An honest one.” He leaned over, resting his elbows on his thighs.

“You sick fuck.” I refused to cry. I would not cry.

“Yes.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. The sound of his palm rubbing against his stubble was loud in my ears.

“What now? Are you going to hurt me some more? Maybe cut some fingers off and send them to my dad? Fuck you. Whatever it is, just get it over with.” Tiredness had settled into every muscle and bone of my body. It must have been the drugs. My back no longer felt so raw; only a low ache emanated from it. My skin felt as if it had stitched back together, but I could already sense the scars forming, solidifying, forever marking me.

“No, I would never…”

I laughed but it was a rough, ugly sound. “You would never? Never what? Never enslave me? Never strip me naked and make me bleed for an audience?” My eyes welled with unshed tears. The hurt inside me seemed too much for my body to bear.

He dropped his head, his defeat just as out of character as his unshaven face and mussed hair. “I can’t change what I did, Stella. I would do it again.”

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