“But you know, love is a two-sided coin.” He pulled a quarter from his pocket and flipped it into the air, catching it with ease. “And on the other side—” He held the coin up. “—is hate. Now, without further ado, let’s get started! Sin, Red, Bob—come on up with your Acquisitions.”

Sin dropped his hand and straightened my shirt. I lurched forward, the floor seeming to give way under my feet. Dizziness swirled through me as he took my elbow and led me through the seating area and to the platform. To the chair.

“That’s it. Come on, come on.” Cal waved us up to stand beside him.

I edged closer to Sin who stood rigid and still. Brianne was already crying, her sunken eyes clenched shut and her nose running. Gavin stared at me, his eyes warm but tired. His clothes fit loosely now, the Acquisition taking a toll on him just like Brianne and me.

“You three—Sin, Red, Bob—have pleased me beyond my wildest dreams. You made excellent choices of whom to acquire. You’ve put them through their paces. I couldn’t be prouder. Show them some love.” Cal held his hand out as if he were displaying a prize on a game show as the audience responded with thunderous clapping and crowing.

“Perfect. Now, perhaps I’m getting a bit old fashioned, but I believe that if you truly love something, you will suffer for it. You will do what you must to keep it safe. Nurture it. Never harm it—well, unless she asks for it. Am I right?” Chuckles rose from the crowd as he went on. “So I’ve created a special task for this final trial. It’s going to be a surprise for our competitors.”

He snapped his fingers. Three attendants rushed to the stage. “Go with them. All three of you have separate rooms. Wait there until I send for you. And no peeking. I don’t want anything ruining the surprise.”

Sin and I dropped off the platform and followed an attendant out of the ballroom. The doors to the ballroom closed once Brianne, Gavin, Red, and Bob stood in the hallway with us. The attendants herded us back across the walkway over the foyer and down to the end of the far hall. We were divided among three rooms, and an attendant took position outside our door as it swung shut.

“That chair.” I rushed into Sin’s arms. “Oh, god.” My voice caught, and I fought away tears. Not here. I wouldn’t cry here. Not until the pain was too great and I couldn’t take it anymore.

“Stella.” He put his palm to my face, and I realized it was trembling. “The chair. They’ll make me hurt you.”

“I know.” I looked into his wild eyes as he scanned the room, like an animal seeking escape through the bars of a cage. But we were in a bedroom, high on the second floor. “Hey.” I got on my tiptoes. “We can do this.”

“I don’t think I can bear it.” He scooped me into his arms and sat on the bed.

“We can.”

He rocked me and rested his lips in my hair. It was as if I could feel him coming apart beneath me, the layers of armor he usually wore stripping away until a broken boy stood there, begging me to save him.

“You don’t understand. I can’t hurt you again.”

“Shh.” I scooted so I sat upright in his lap and pressed my lips to his. “When this is over, I will still love you. Nothing will ever keep me from loving you.”

“Don’t say that.” He glanced to the window again. “You don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“I know they won’t make you kill me or maim me. It’s against the rules to do it to an Acquisition, right? And anything else, I’ll heal from it. Sin, please just look at me.”

He brought his tortured gaze back to mine.

“I’ll be alive on the other side. I’ll be with you. Do it for Teddy.”

He didn’t respond, only pulled me to him. We sat in silence for over an hour. I thought I heard footsteps and the doors close from the adjoining rooms, but I couldn’t be certain.

Random bits of noise filtered down from the ballroom, but not enough for us to have an inkling of what was going on. After another two hours had passed, our door opened. Sin set me on my feet as the attendant motioned for us to follow him back to the ballroom.

We entered, and the coppery scent of blood surrounded us.

“Our final competitor at last. Come on up.”

My feet didn’t want to move, but Sin pushed me forward roughly. He was back in character, which was a good sign, though I feared how he’d react when he had to hurt me.

“Oh, Stella.” Cal pulled me into his side. “Have I mentioned that I have a thing for redheads?”

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