“Oh, your paintings.” He almost managed a smile. “Yes, yes. The gallery called. Just a few days ago, some highbrow collector came in and bought every last one of your works.”

“Someone bought out the gallery?”

“No, not the whole gallery, just your pieces. It was the damnedest thing. Paid full for each one and had them shipped. I don’t know who it was, and the gallery kept their information confidential. But the check was real enough.” His gaze dropped again. “I put it in your account. It’ll be there when you get back.”

My heart soared at the thought of my art gracing some collector’s walls. I’d never sold more than a few paintings every so often. Certainly, no one had ever bought two at once. This news was like Christmas… Then I remembered what my real Christmas would entail.

My smile faltered a bit before I plastered it back across my face. “Dylan, how’s school?”

“Same old, same old. My lacrosse team is leading the SEC like it does every year…” He gave the broad strokes of his life outside, the start of a new school year. Instead of making me feel better, it only reinforced my isolation here at the Vinemont estate.

I resolved to get outdoors more, especially now that my back had healed. Renee had spoken of stables on the property. I’d always been a decent rider.

When Dylan wound down, my father leaned forward and took my hands. “Please tell me what you’ve been doing for the past month. I think about you every moment.”

I glanced to Vinemont. His gaze bored into me.

“I mostly stay in the house. I read and paint. There are others here. I have a good friend, Renee. And Vinemont’s brothers are pleasant, especially the youngest, Teddy.” Okay, I may have fibbed a bit—well, a lot—but I couldn’t exactly explain that I was whipped bloody and paraded around naked.

“Has he hurt you? Has anyone? I couldn’t bear to think of them hurting you.” The tears welled in Dad’s eyes again.

I shook my head in vehement denial. “No, no. They’re all very nice here. I’m fine, really. It’s like an upscale prison, really. Food’s good, too. Far better than anything you ever made, Dad.”

That would have made him laugh a month ago. Now, though, he only smiled sadly.

“If they just keep you around as a pet, what’s the point?” Dylan asked.

“I, um, I don’t really know.” Lies were rolling off my tongue more easily by the minute. “I think it’s just some sort of traditional thing they do here.”

“Why don’t you enlighten us, asshole?” Dylan turned to Vinemont.

“Oh, suffice it to say, I like owning beautiful things. As you know, your stepsister is particularly lovely, especially when unencumbered with trifles like clothing.” Vinemont didn’t miss a beat.

I gripped Dylan’s hand hard, keeping him next to me on the couch instead of challenging the devil in the doorway.

“I have an idea, Stella. Why don’t you show Dylan who you belong to?”

Ice water flowed through my heart. “What?”

“If he wants to know why I keep you and what I do to you, just give him a peek at your neck. I realize he’s slow, but maybe a little demonstration will help him figure it out.”

Dylan was already searching my throat with his gaze. “What’s he talking about, Stella?”

“Nothing.” I smoothed my hair down.

“Did he do something to you?” Dad asked. The sadness in his voice broke off a piece of my heart, leaving a bloody, jagged edge.

“No, he’s just talking.”

“Show them, Stella.” It was a command now, no longer a suggestion.

“No.” I pleaded with him, humiliation rising to color my cheeks.

“Is this a road you want to go down?” Vinemont looked from my father to me, the threat lingering in the air. “Do it.”

“Don’t talk to her like that.” Dylan’s anger mixed with the already-dangerous current of emotions in the room.

“No, I’ll show you. Just don’t antagonize him.”

“I’m not scared of him.” Dylan rose and faced Vinemont. “Of you. Let’s take this outside, motherfucker.”

“Wait, no, Dylan. He’s right. He owns me. I let him, okay? I’m his. Look.” I bent my head and pulled my hair to the side. “See? I’m his. I chose to be here, chose to be his.”

My father gasped. “No, Stella.”

“See, Dylan?” Vinemont’s self-satisfied tone made me want to claw his eyes out.

“All I see is a pussy who gets his rocks off hurting women,” Dylan snarled.

Score one for Dylan.

“Let’s not be so reductive. I enjoy hurting men, too, especially dumb brutes like you. Want me to show you?” Vinemont pushed off the doorframe and stood at the ready.

I smoothed my hair back over the mark. “Stop, both of you! Dylan, please, for me, just talk to me a while longer. Ignore him. Don’t you see? He wants you to go outside and fight him.”

“Time’s wasting, Dylan,” Vinemont added not-so-helpfully.

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