They’re sitting on Cassia’s bed talking. Seemingly harmless. Turning the volume up just slightly, I listen in on their conversation for several minutes. Nothing of significance. Greta is telling Cassia about her daughter and their trip to Monte Carlo last year. Cassia smiles so beautifully, so innocently, and it affects me in the worst of ways. I push down the pain and guilt that I feel for keeping her imprisoned for so long, keeping her from living life and seeing the world like I know she must dream about seeing it. That brightness in her brown eyes is unmistakable as she listens to Greta talk about Monte Carlo. She’s envisioning herself there. And rather than dwelling on the truth of her predicament, she just smiles and accepts it, instead.
I’m a f**king bastard.
With my palms pressed against the countertop, I drop my head slightly between my rigid shoulders and let out a long and miserable breath, shutting my eyes softly.
But when I open them again, I notice something that shocks me back into an upright position. My eyes grow wide with panic. Once I manage to shake off the paralyzing numbness my body has fallen victim to, I dash down the hallway toward the basement door, flinging it open and then taking the concrete steps two at a time until I make it to the bottom.
Greta and Cassia both jump at the sight of me, Cassia flinging herself against the wall on the other side of the bed.
I march over and snatch Cassia up into my arms.
“Why did you take it off?!” I shout at Greta, my voice and my face filled with reprimand.
Greta shoots to her feet while Cassia presses her head harshly against my chest. I hold her with one arm around the back of her waist and the other underneath the bends of her legs.
I glance briefly at Cassia’s ankle where her shackle is supposed to be, and then back at Greta who’s about five seconds away from meeting her maker.
“Please Fredrik,” Cassia cries into my chest, “don’t blame Greta. I begged her to remove it. It was hurting.” She fits her small hand around the side of my neck to hold on to me. I nearly wilt by her touch.
I shake it off fast and set Cassia back down on the bed.
“Bring it to me,” I demand Greta.
Greta, afraid to speak, scurries over and takes the chain into her hand. Crouching down on the floor in front of Cassia, I slide her thin yellow gown up her soft legs, grazing her skin with my fingertips and it reacts to my touch as tiny goose bumps appear.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Gustavsson.” Greta holds the shackle out to me. “I wouldn’t have let her escape. But I was concerned about her ankle. I cleaned it like you always asked me to.”
“I’ve told you never to remove it. Never.” With my hands on Cassia’s warm thighs, I turn my head slowly, indignantly, and look up at Greta standing over me to my right. “If she didn’t like you so much…” I grind my jaw and look away.
Calming myself, I give Cassia all of my attention again, sliding her leg in my free hand downward until I make it to her ankle. And then I stop and drop the shackle on the floor instead of putting it back on. Letting out a heavy sigh, I drop my gaze to my shoes, feeling even guiltier than I felt when I had been upstairs watching her from the live feed. I look back down at Cassia’s injured ankle. Blood has been drawn where the metal scraped against the back of her foot, just above her heel. And there are little blisters in a horizontal pattern on the inside of her ankle, just below the ankle bone. Her skin is yellowed by bruising, and red and inflamed around the cuts and blisters. Something clear glistens all over her skin, probably antibiotic ointment that Greta put on after cleaning it.
“Shit,” I say under my breath.
I rise into a stand and pick Cassia up from the bed, wrapping my arms around her small form. She latches her legs around my waist and her arms around my neck. Her body trembles against mine, though I know she’s only scared for Greta and not for herself.
“We’ll discuss this in the morning,” I say, turning to Greta who’s looking back at me with fear at rest in her features. “Be here at your usual time.”
“Yes, sir.” She bows her head and moves quickly toward the staircase.
The moment I hear the basement door close, I tighten my arms around Cassia’s body and shut my eyes to savor the moment.
“Please don’t hurt Greta,” she whispers in a teary voice into the side of my neck.
I swallow hard.
“I’m not going to hurt her,” I whisper back, and cup the back of her soft blonde head within the palm of my free hand.
The feeling of her bare thighs tightening around my waist makes me hard. The warmth between her legs on my stomach. I try to ignore it, pushing my need to be with her far into the back of my mind. But it’s so difficult. Painful and torturous.
Cassia is my punishment. I know she is. For all of the horrific things I’ve done to people in all these years, I’ve known for the past year that she must’ve been sent as my punishment. And my undoing. I’d much rather be strapped to my own chair and my teeth be pulled out of my head, or needles be shoved underneath my fingernails or my skin be peeled from my muscles, than to suffer this kind of torture. I would rather die. Just kill me and get it over with. The pain of being near her and knowing that I can’t give in to my feelings for her, is the worst kind of pain I’ve ever felt.
And the only other thing I want more in this world than to find Seraphina, is for this pain to go away.
“I should be here more,” I say softly into her hair. “My job has been more demanding than usual. I never meant to neglect you.”
Cassia raises her head from my shoulder and peers deeply into my eyes as I hold her propped around my waist with her bottom in my hands.
This isn’t right.
I should stand her up.
I ignore my inner voice and stare back into her eyes, fighting eternally with my conscience.
The softness of Cassia’s fingertips trails down the sides of my face and then her lips fall on the corners of my mouth. One and then the other.
I should stop her
I should drop her on the bed and leave her be.
I do neither.
Instead, I hold her tighter and shut my eyes softly, seeking her lips with my own, though still reluctant to taste them. Because I know what it will do to me.
Before I let myself kiss her, I pull away and carry her toward the bathroom. I drag my hands gently across the bare flesh of her thighs as I set her down on the countertop.
I snap out of the forbidden thoughts again and pull her ankle into my hand.
“This looks bad,” I say. “I’m sorry for letting it get that way.”