I don’t belong to him, and nothing he can do will change that. I repeated that in my head while I sobbed. I lay face down along the length of the heavy, familiar bench, my wrists secured to the legs on either side. The bindings held me so I couldn’t move more than a tiny bit in any direction.
Between my hitching breaths, I heard Master Mitchell’s belt threading back through the loops of his trousers. He stood next to me without saying a word.
When the last of my tears had flowed, he pulled my hair away from my face with gentle fingers. “Aren’t you tired of fighting me after all this time? You know it won’t do you any good.”
I didn’t bother to answer. He reached over me to his dresser, then gave me a whack on the backside. I stifled a groan. The pain was nothing compared to the welts that burned across my back from his belt’s attentions, but I knew what he held from that one touch. The wooden back he had just slapped me with was by no means the worst that coarse brush had to offer.
He paused to rub his knuckles over my bare bottom in a mocking caress. “With your uncooperative attitude, I can only place you with the roughest of my clients. Wouldn’t you prefer to serve men who won’t treat you so badly?”
“Then who would you offer up to those swine?”
He flipped the brush around and hit me with the stiff bristles until I squirmed from the cutting bite of it scratching my skin. “That’s none of your concern.”
How wrong he was. I’d been making that decision for years by being difficult with every man he put in a room with me. Keeping the worst of them away from the other girls seemed worth it, most of the time.
Merciful spirits, I hated that brush.
He sat down on the bench above my head and lightly placed his hand on the back of my neck. “I can think of more pleasant ways to spend our time.”
I had little interest in his clumsy seduction, a fact which he knew by then. “Let’s just skip ahead to the part where you force yourself on me and pretend that I enjoy it.”
With an angry hiss, he peppered my back with the brush. The bristles tore at my broken skin and sent agony radiating in every direction. I started screaming after the third strike and lost count soon afterward.
When I ran out of breath and could scream no longer, he stopped. My entire back throbbed. I gulped for air. He tugged the strap around my knees loose while humming quietly. I rested my face against the bench and took a few shuddering breaths.
He scratched the bristles of the brush up the back of my right thigh to get my attention. Though my legs were free, I was too exhausted to move away from the uncomfortable sensation.
“Your defiance is not without its charm. The quiet moments after are always so enjoyable. I’ll miss you when you’re gone.” He’d threatened to sell me to a labor camp as a breeder so often that it had ceased to frighten me long ago.
I swallowed to steady my voice, my throat raw from screaming. “Am I going somewhere? I hear Garza is nice this time of year.”
He laughed, but there was little humor in the sound. “Tristan will be here in a few weeks to take a batch of girls to sale in Rochelle.” He put down the brush and ran his fingers over the curve of my ass. “You don’t bring in as much as you used to. I can no longer justify keeping you for what little amusement you offer me when there is no profit in it. You’re going in the next group.”
I turned my head to look at him, not believing a word of it. When I saw his expression, though, I knew he was telling the truth. His graying hair clung to the sides of his face, framing a sad smile that was not at home on his handsome features. I held his gaze for longer than could be considered appropriate. Neither of us spoke.
I had wished myself free of his House more times than I could remember, but with the prospect of getting out before me, fear crept into my throat and choked me. With Mitchell, I knew where I stood and which lines he wouldn’t cross. As much as I hated him, there was a measure of trust there that I couldn’t deny. After I was auctioned, there was no telling where I would end up.
“Nothing to say?” His hand slid over the torn skin of my back with a light touch that brought an absurd amount of pain. I gritted my teeth.
He crouched next to my head and worked at the binding on my right wrist. “If you ask me nicely, I’ll consider keeping you.” His blue eyes searched my face as he caressed my cheek. The unspoken promise of tenderness was a familiar lie. I no longer wondered who that lie was supposed to convince.
How easy it would be to beg him to keep me. For a brief moment, I almost wished I could do it. I despised the weak part of myself that wanted his approval.
“Never.” I turned my face away from him and closed my eyes. Tears overflowed and spilled down my cheeks. I didn’t want him to see how much he had hurt me because I knew that pain was what he sought, an indicator that he’d broken me at last.
With a contemptuous growl, he stood and kicked the bottom of the bench under my head, jarring my teeth with the force. The sound of his belt being pulled free again rasped in my ears.
Later that evening, Mitchell sent Felicity to clear me out of his room where he’d left me alone to “think over my options.” She helped me limp to the cramped one-room building that housed a dozen of us. The oil lanterns of the House warded off the coming night, but our quarters were dark, as always.
Groaning, I settled on the sparse straw covering my pallet. Felicity lit the stub of a candle and placed it on the floor nearby. I wondered how she’d smuggled it out of the main House. If she earned a beating on my account, I’d feel terrible, but I was thankful for the meager amount of light. She cleaned the welts on my back with a damp cloth, making soothing sounds whenever I flinched. In another time, another place, her graceful hands would have made her a musician.
“Why is it always you who comes for me?”
She made a thoughtful hum. “I volunteer.”
I turned to look at her over my shoulder. Older than me by several years, she’d been perhaps twenty when the Dominion’s armies had landed on our shores. Strands of gray were just starting to encroach on the edges of her dark hair at the temples.
“Why would you want to help me?” I whispered.
She met my gaze, her eyes unreadable in the dark room. “I could ask you the same question.”
“I’ve never gone out of my way to help you.”
Her lips curled into a small smile, and she tilted her head. “Haven’t you? Haven’t you helped every one of the girls here?”
Staring down at my chafed wrists, I sighed. “I don’t know what you mean.”
Felicity tsked. “I mean you acting up on purpose so Master Mitchell will assign you his worst clients. Did you think we didn’t notice?”
I squirmed as she wiped a particularly sensitive spot along my ribs. “Only someone truly demented would bring this on herself, don’t you think?”
“No, I don’t think that at all.” She rubbed ointment into a welt under my left shoulder blade.
I winced at the sting as the awful smelling herbal concoction seeped into my skin. “I do what I have to do to remain sane; that’s all.”
“Well, maybe you could tone it down a bit, just so some of these could heal before you get a whole new set atop them. You’re not as young as you used to be.” Her hand rested lightly on my shoulder.
I leaned forward, pressing my face into the rough-spun wool of my blanket so she wouldn’t see the tears that threatened. “I don’t think that will be a problem much longer.”
“Last chance,” Mitchell said as he clipped a lead to the metal collar around my neck. We stood several paces away from the rest of the girls who were in the process of being tied to Tristan’s cart.
I didn’t look at him or respond. I had nothing to say.
He pulled my chin up and stared into my face with an inquisitive expression. “You’re going to regret this. You don’t understand how kind I’ve been.”
I met his gaze for only a few seconds, then lowered my eyes. I did understand. Kind was not the word I would have chosen, but he had always been reluctant to cause permanent damage, which was more than could be said for many Domini slave owners. I had been in his care for more than a decade and had never, in all that time, feared for my life.
The worst of his clients were nowhere near as bad as the Dominion soldiers who had invaded almost twenty years ago. The shrieks of girls being battered and violated still haunted my nightmares more often than not. I tried to push away the recollection of the terror those men had wrought on my village when I felt the memories bearing down on me. The images of my dying mother’s bloody face lingered, along with the tightness in my chest.
He let out an exaggerated sigh and released my chin. I wondered if it was a game for him. Did he hope I would ask to stay, so he could pack me off anyway? He would never know that satisfaction. There were few enough matters I could control in my life, but that was one of them.
He walked behind me to remove the straps from my wrists so I would be able to keep up with the pace of the mule-drawn cart. Tristan’s hired thug approached, his heavy boots entering the edge of my vision.
Mitchell handed my leash to the other man. “Keep this one bound at night, or she’ll give you reason to be sorry. Tell Tristan to push a hard pace so she’ll tire; that will make her easier to handle.”
“This tawny kitten won’t give us any trouble.” Tristan’s man gave a sharp tug on the tether, sending me crashing into him, his broad chest halting my forward motion like a stone wall. “If she does, she’ll end up warming my blankets at night, and she won’t enjoy that one bit.” He fondled my bottom with a hearty chuckle.
I wondered if Mitchell would say something as the hulking man led me away, but no final words came. When I glanced over my shoulder to catch a last glimpse of him, he had already gone.
“Tie that one up here, Blake,” Tristan said to the man leading me.
More than twenty girls were tied to his cart in chains of three. Six, including me, had come from Mitchell’s house. Blake tied me near the front, next to the driver’s seat of the cart.
“We going to have a problem with that one?” Tristan asked.
“No,” Blake answered, giving my backside another squeeze. “We already had a talk. If she steps out of line, she’ll be sleeping with me.”
The walking stick Tristan used to accommodate his limp came up under my chin. He spoke with the care one might take when addressing a dimwitted mule. “Meek as a lamb every step of the way and I won’t have to worry if he’s cutting into my profit by damaging you while you’re yowling under him.”
I repressed a disrespectful sound. I had sized up Blake already. Large he might be, but he was no brute. His fondling held affection that a man who enjoyed hurting women didn’t display. I had occasion to know the difference. Tristan was the dangerous one of the pair, of that I had no doubt. Tristan snapped his whip in the air above the mule team, and they took off at a quick walk.
The brutal midday sun exhausted me within minutes. I kept my eyes on the horizon, concentrating on each step to keep my mind from returning to the life behind me. Lines of shimmering heat rose from the hard-baked earth.
Tristan kept us moving much longer than he should have. My feet ached, and my eyes itched with the gritty red dust the ceaseless wind drove into every crevice. Blake silently walked beside me. He glanced around when one of the girls stumbled. “We should stop soon to give them some water.”
Tristan snorted with disgust. “We’ll stop in a while. I’ve no time to coddle these trollops. I still have another stop before Rochelle.”
Blake slowed, moving in toward the cart. “Some of them are about to collapse. It won’t speed us any if they start dropping.”
Tristan glared at his hired strong-arm. “You don’t make the decisions here, Garzan. Now be quiet and keep them moving.”
Blake subsided, but reached into the cart and pulled out a canteen. He unscrewed the cap and passed the container to me. I lifted it to my lips, swallowing the tepid water that splashed into my mouth. I passed the canteen back, and he slowed another step to pass the water to one of the other girls. Tristan made another disgruntled noise, but didn’t say anything.
Tristan didn’t stop the cart until almost dusk. We were told to bed down where we stood. Blake made a circuit of the girls with ladles of water and our dinners. He came to me last. I swallowed the water first to ease my parched throat, then started on the stale biscuit.
Blake crouched down next to me and whispered, “He wants you tonight.”
I looked up into his wide face. A scar cut across his left cheek and twisted that half of his mouth in a perpetual grimace, yet the expression around his eyes was not that of a cruel man.
“You’re in the wrong business,” I replied before I continued to eat.
His mouth opened, but he closed it after a moment. He looked over his shoulder to where one of the girls was serving Tristan his dinner. He turned back to me and narrowed his eyes. “Just finish up your food, and I’ll bring you to him. Remember, if you cause any trouble, you end up with me tonight.”
“While I appreciate the offer, Felicity would be a better choice for you.” I lifted my chin in the direction of the woman who had helped me so many times. She shook under the threadbare blanket wrapped around her slim shoulders.
His eyes moved to the frightened woman. He gave her a long, appraising look before turning back to me. He nodded once. At least she would be safe. I was quite sure she couldn’t handle what Tristan was rumored to dole out.
I finished chewing the last mouthful of biscuit. He handed me another ladle of water. I sipped that one slower.
Blake frowned, pulling the scar on his cheek taut. “He knows you caused Mitchell trouble. He wants to make an example of you.”
“I’m familiar with his type.” I handed the ladle back with a small smile. “I’ll be fine.”
There is an art to defiance; any slave would say the same. Knowing when to be meek and when to show spirit was a complex dance that depended on the man issuing the commands. I had never been very good at dancing.
Tristan had battered the back of my shoulders and thighs with his walking stick for a long time. I had gone hoarse from shrieking to a point where I could do little more than groan with each blow. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to walk the next day, which would cause additional problems in the morning.
I hadn’t complied with a single order. As soon as I saw his smirk, I couldn’t bring myself to cooperate, though I had intended to at first.
Tristan limped around in front of me and leaned on his stick, watching me with a hateful expression. “Blake,” he called. “Bring me one of the others.”
Blake came over a few minutes later with a girl I didn’t know. She took in my state with a glance, shuddering as she walked by me. She set to pleasing Tristan with her mouth after little more than a suggestion. My example worked as intended, after all.
Blake moved to where I was bound and bent to untie me.
“Leave the bitch there,” Tristan said.
“She won’t be able to walk tomorrow.”
“She’ll walk, or we’ll drag her.” He grunted and slapped the girl in his lap.