I leaned her back and poured water in her hair. I shampooed her scalp, the first time in my life I’d ever done such a thing. Her neck bore ugly bruises from Dylan’s hands. Anger coiled in my stomach like a snake waiting to strike, but I shut it down and concentrated on Stella. Once I rinsed the suds from her hair and she was clean, I hit the drain.

“No.” Her protest was weak.

I gripped under her arms and lifted her until she stood, the water sluicing down her body. She was more than I could take, so beautiful that it hurt. I wrapped a towel around her and scooped her up again before carrying her back to the bedroom. The king size bed with the black comforter swallowed her whole.

I inspected her feet. They were still in a bad way and needed antibacterial ointment and bandages. Her eyes were closed, her wet hair fanning out against the pillow. I would kill two birds with one stone. I got the first aid items and laid out alcohol, ointment, gauze, tape, and one final thing—a syringe.

“Stella? This is going to hurt.”

She murmured something unintelligible. With the syringe in one hand, I dabbed alcohol onto a blister with the other. She awoke on a scream, the sound raising the hair on the back of my neck. It was perfect.

I gripped her arm hard and kept it still as I slid the needle into her vein and depressed the plunger. She looked at me, lightly shaking her head as one tear fell. Then she was out. Hitting a vein on a struggling woman was one of my specialties, thanks to my mother.

Another crash from the living quarters. This time it sounded like Lucius had ripped the flat screen off the wall.

I took my time with her, cleaning every blister, every scratch. An hour later, she was bandaged and sleeping comfortably. I undressed and took a quick shower, though I hated letting her out of my sight. Lucius would guard us, not that I expected any guests. I’d made clear that Stella was mine and that I wasn’t sharing. Or, that Lucius wasn’t sharing, as they thought.

I was still amazed that he’d called me last night. That he’d given up and wanted to transfer her back to me. It didn’t work that way, of course. He never gave me a reason why, though I suspected the rules had something to do with it. And when he’d explained this particular trial to me, I knew I had to get to Stella first. To be the one who took her or saved her, as the case may be.

I hated myself for knowing that I would have done it if I’d had to. If someone had been watching, I would have committed the act. I had no choice. It was the only way to keep her safe from the others, and the only way to win the Acquisition. Would she have ever forgiven me? I shook my head, not wanting to consider that alternate outcome.

She rested peacefully, her chest rising and falling, and every so often a sweet sigh escaped her lips as if she were in a pleasant dream. The drugs wouldn’t wear off for a few hours. I dug through my bag, pulled on some boxers, and picked out some panties and pajamas for her. I slipped the towel away from her body and my cock was rock hard in an instant. I slid a pair of panties up her legs, careful to avoid the bandages, followed by a pair of shorts. Once I pulled her top over her head and threaded her arms through it, I pulled the sheet down and lay down beside her.

I couldn’t look away. She was the only thing I’d seen for months. Even when she wasn’t in my presence, I saw her. More than that, I felt her. She’d taken up residence inside me. I shifted closer, her body so near mine that I could feel her heat. It was a comfort. I watched over her. I was here, with her, and she was safe.

Chapter Sixteen

Stella

I woke with one thought. He saved me. I was warm, with my head on his chest and his arm around my shoulders. He was everywhere—his scent, his body, him. I stretched against him and my muscles ached. My feet stung, and my arm felt as if it were broken. The morning came back in a rush, and I sat straight up despite the pain.

Vinemont sat up with me and scanned the room before turning his gaze back to me.

Dusk had fallen outside. How long had I been here?

“You drugged me.” I felt along my arm where the needle had gone in.

“You needed it.”

“Maybe, but you can’t just drug me!”

“It won’t happen again.” He smirked, the signature twist of his lips familiar enough to be comforting. “It won’t happen again unless you are in extreme pain and by drugging you, I am easing that pain.”

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