I’m going to drug Francesca and use Emilio to help me get her out of the mansion—Sian is the trade. It has to work. It’s the only plan I have.
“Please—I’m grateful that you people are helping me,” Sian says, “but I can’t leave Italy without Emilio and our daughter. I just can’t!”
“Listen to me,” I say, grabbing her face carefully, forcing her gaze. “If you don’t leave with us now, you’ll end up dead. Emilio will end up dead. This is the way it has to be done. You go with us to the United States and”—I shouldn’t say this but I’m going to anyway—“and after you’re safe where no one can find you, I’ll do what I can to find your baby. And Emilio.”
“Izabel,” Nora says with caution.
I turn to see her standing beside me; You can’t help that girl, her eyes tell me.
I’m saying what needs to be said to get her to trust us, my eyes tell her.
I look back into Sian’s hopeful face.
“Leave with us,” I say, “and when you walk out that door, just be calm and act normal—savor your first real taste of freedom; think of your daughter and of Emilio and of being reunited with them soon, and I promise you that you will be if you just trust me.”
It takes her a moment, but finally Sian nods; she reaches up and wipes tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand. “OK,” she says.
“We need to go,” Nora urges.
“Are you ready?” I ask Sian.
With bags and suitcases in tow, we leave the hotel and head for the plane.
“Unfortunately,” I tell Francesca, “none of these girls will do, either.”
Francesca walks around a line of nine cyprians all standing in a confused row: two of them keep asking what’s going on; two more are giving me go-to-hell looks; one is crying because she thinks she did something wrong and was brought here to be killed; the other four think I’m just looking to buy their services and were happy to oblige until I just rejected them. Now they’re also telling me with their eyes to go to hell.
“That is a shame,” Francesca says.
She waves them off and they follow Miz Ghita out of the room.
“Mother,” Francesca calls out, and Miz Ghita stops at the door. “I do not want to be disturbed by anyone for the next hour at least.” Hopefully Emilio is still brazen enough to defy her orders—I need him.
“Very well.” Miz Ghita glares hatefully at me and leaves, closing the door.
Francesca strolls over in that sultry walk of hers and fits her fingers around the tiny lock in the door knob, turning it. She’s dressed in another robe today—white, of course—but devoid of innocent girls’ blood. And I bet there’s nothing on underneath it.
“Last night,” she says, coming toward me, “after you’d gone, I thought a lot about our meeting.”
“And?” I take a drag from my cigarette; I’m kicked back on the sofa, both feet on the floor, my legs apart.
She smiles faintly.
“And I like you, Niklas,” she says. “I’ve never met anyone like you before, and I think we could learn a lot from one another.”
She stops in front of me; long dark hair drapes her shoulders. I set the cigarette in the ashtray on the end table.
“Learn from one another?” I ask, suspiciously, smiling up at her. “That’s not what really interests you, is it?”
She grins. Then she breaks apart the belt that holds her robe closed and stands naked before me. The robe falls to the floor.
“Well, Niklas, there are many things we can learn.”
“And what exactly do you want to know?” I ask, already having a good idea.
She steps between my splayed legs, in arm’s reach, and I place my hands on her bare thighs, brushing my fingers across her soft skin.
“I want to know,” she says, “what you feel like.”
Slipping my hands from her outer thighs to the inner, I run them up and down the sensitive flesh, feeling it warm beneath my palms. “Is that all?” I say, and move my fingers between her wet lips without entering her—she closes her eyes, savoring it. “Is there anything else?”
“Yes,” she says, “but we can talk about that later.”
“I would like to talk about it now, if you don’t mind.”
She pauses. “All right,” she says, and sits down next to me. “I will get right to it then—I have a proposition for you.”
“What kind of proposition?” I take another drag.
She twirls my hair in her fingers, her arm around the back of my neck.
“I need a master here in my mansion to train my new arrivals, get them ready for the showings. Emilio has always done it, but my brother went astray, betrayed me and fell for one of the very girls he was supposed to be priming. He has made me look bad, to the other masters who sell their merchandise in my showings, and to my family. It is unacceptable. He always did have a soft spot for the girls, never quite disciplined them to my liking.” With her other hand she turns my head to face her fully. “But you, Niklas, I know can get things done the way they should be. You not only seem willing to punish without mercy, but you enjoy it. It was you who cut off your girl’s finger, wasn’t it?” She grins.
I nod and kiss her fingers, and then move her hand from my face. “You know me too well already,” I say and touch my lips to one corner of her mouth.
“And here with me,” she goes on in that silky voice, “you will have the respect you deserve; you will never live in someone else’s shadow; you will never have to concern yourself with money because you will be paid more than you have ever seen in your life”—she gazes deep into my eyes—“and you will do as you please, fuck who you want to fuck, disfigure who you want to disfigure, and I would never dream of taking anything from you that is rightfully yours.”
“Sounds promising,” I say, and then kill the cigarette in the ashtray.
I look beyond Francesca, at the wall, and I think of my brother. I think of everything that I’ve done for him since we were kids: the beatings I took for him, the life I could’ve had if I didn’t love him so much I chose to stay with him in a life that robbed me of who I was meant to be; I think of the lies I told The Order to cover for him the many times he disobeyed Vonnegut and chose to do things his own way—Victor always did have rebellious blood, leader’s blood; it doesn’t surprise me that he eventually went rogue from The Order and started his own. And I think of the worst thing I ever did, the one thing in my life I can never forgive myself for. Shooting Sarai. Shooting her for my brother. It was my fault; no one can be blamed for my actions but me, but I still hate Victor for it as much as I hate myself. And I did all of this for what? For a brother who, as much I know loves me in his own fucked up way, was still going to kill me because he thought I betrayed him.
He was going to kill me…after everything I’d done for him, my brother was going to kill me. And the girl he was falling in love with, the girl I tried to kill, had more mercy for me than he did.
I’m only alive today because of her. And I’m a different person today because of her.
I will not live in my brother’s shadow anymore.
“You know,” I say, slipping a hand between Francesca’s thighs and squeezing the flesh, “I have to admit, your offer is tempting.”
She moves in front of me and straddles my lap, and without even thinking about it I put a nipple in my mouth, squeezing her tit firmly in one hand; the other hand still between her legs. I push two fingers inside of her.
“What about Emilio?” I ask, and then pull her nipple with my teeth.
Her hands are in the back of my hair; she’s slowly starting to ride my fingers.
“Emilio will accept my decision,” she says, her eyes still closed, her bottom lip wedged between her teeth.
“I wasn’t talking about that,” I say, and then I kiss her throat. “I’m talking about now—I thought you loved him?”
She drags the tip of her tongue down one side of my neck, and then bites me; the motion of her hips like a small wave on my lap.
“I do love him,” she says, gasping, “but that does not mean I have to save myself for him; he was not saving himself for me, was he?” She’s so bitter—this, to her, is another way she thinks she’s getting back at Emilio.
She opens her eyes and gazes into mine.
Then she kisses me, deep; her hands grip my hair, pulling me toward her. I hook my fingers inside of her and she moans, pushing her hips against them.
“And what about that girl of yours?” she says breathily onto my mouth. “I take it that you understand the line between love and loyalty?”
My mouth covers hers, our tongues tangled.
“I don’t love her,” I say, breaking the kiss briefly. “I’m just fond of her. I fuck who I want.” I kiss her again, ravenously, forcing Izabel’s face out of my mind, and quietly damning this bitch for putting it there.
With Francesca’s legs wrapped around me, her ass in my hands, I rise into a stand with her straddling my waist, and carry her over to the large wooden desk between two tall windows letting in an abundance of daylight. And I throw her down on it, pushing the contents of it out of the way, scattering items. I spread her legs before me with my hands. But when I see her face, gazing up at me with those dark bottomless eyes, I flip her over onto her stomach instead, pulling her body down so her feet touch the floor. I want to hurt her; I want to take my frustrations out on her—and I’m fucking going to.