“I’m not going to like what I find, am I?” I finally ask.
The hard, cold honesty of that one word sets me in motion. Whatever awaits me inside, I just want to know. I step out of the car, and despite leaving my jacket at the gallery, I welcome the cold night air that lets me feel anything but the ache burning through me. I slide my purse over my shoulder. My cash and credit cards give me an exit route if I need one, and I’m shocked I have this clarity of mind. I’ve found that deep hole, or at least the edge of the void that I know too well.
Mark rounds the car and cups my elbow, murmuring something to the guard I don’t even try to hear, before he leads me up the stairs toward the double red doors I’d entered only once before. They open as we approach and another suited man greets Mark.
Cotton seems to gather in my mouth as we step inside the mansion, onto the expensive Oriental rug. My gaze sweeps the towering ceilings and expensive art and décor surrounding me, and I almost laugh at the façade of proper decorum.
Mark motions to the winding staircase covered in red carpet rather than to the hallway to the right I’d once traveled with Chris. There’s a second set I didn’t notice going down, and they become our path to wherever we are headed. We travel downward and the winding path is tortuous and eternal. My heart is pounding in my ears, behind my eyes, pounding and pounding. I cling to the rail, and somehow I’ve wrapped my arm through Mark’s to cling to him as well. I don’t remember how we get to another red door. We are suddenly just there. It’s wooden and arched, with a huge metal bolt. My stomach knots. Oh, God. A dungeon. Pain. Torture.
Mark pulls me around to face him, holding my arm. “Accept him or walk away.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Because he’s dangerously on the edge and I think you can pull him back.”
I search his face, looking for the truth in his answer, and I find it. I don’t care why he cares what happens to Chris. I just know he does. I straighten. “Take me to him.”
He studies me for a long moment, assessing my state of mind, and apparently he approves. Without another word, he shoves the heavy bolt aside and opens the door. The scent of something spicy like incense touches my nose, burning through me like acid fear. I hold my breath as I step forward, blocking it out, and I find myself inside what looks like a concrete holding room, not more than twenty by twenty feet. At least half a dozen lanterns pulse from the depths of massive steel encasements high on the walls.
I draw a calming breath and stare at the huge blank monitor spanning the wall directly in front of me, much like the one Chris had used to show me a woman being flogged in another part of the mansion. Cold seeps into my bones and I shiver; the sensation of being underground and trapped is almost unbearable.
“Where is he?” I ask.
Mark motions to the wooden door on my left. “In the next room, but I need to be clear. To allow you to intrude on play breaks every code of honor I have for this club. I interfere only if I judge that someone’s well-being is at risk.”
“What are you saying?”
“He goes too far when he’s like this. The report I received upon arriving is that tonight is only different from the past in that he’s beyond even his worst extreme.”
My nails dig into my palms. “Take me to him.”
He walks to the monitor and retrieves a remote control mounted to the wall. “I need to know you can handle what you’re going to find before I let you inside.”
“Then show me now,” I demand, balling one of my fists on my chest, as if that might keep my heart from exploding where it beats furiously.
“The reasons people enjoy our play here vary. Most of us simply find it an adrenaline rush and a pleasurable escape. Chris isn’t about pleasure. He’s about punishing himself.”
“Damn it, Mark, show me.”
His lips tighten and he punches the button on the remote. The screen comes to life. I hear Chris before I see him, his raspy, harsh breathing. I try to process what I’m seeing. Chris is inside a round concrete cell, shirtless, wearing only his jeans. His arms are outstretched and tied to some kind of poles. He isn’t wearing a mask, but the woman standing behind him from a small boxed window at the top of the monitor is. She’s in some kind of leather barely-there outfit with high boots, and oh, God. I cover my mouth and jump as she lays a harrowing strike of a whip against Chris’s back. His body jerks with the impact.
“Harder!” Chris snarls, sweat gathering on his forehead. “Fucking hit me like you mean it, or send someone in who can do the job.”
She hits him again. He bucks under the lash and then laughs bitterly. “Are you the pu**y or am I?”
The woman pulls the whip back, and I shout, “No! No more!” I dart for the door and yank it open and Mark doesn’t stop me. I enter the dungeon’s circle from behind Chris and the sight of Chris’s welts, bleeding down his back, is almost too much to bear.
“Finally,” Chris growls at the sound of my entry, unaware it’s me. “A replacement. I hope you’re better than she is.”
“Cut him loose,” I hiss at the masked woman even as I’m rounding the poles to stand in front of Chris. Tears streak his face, torment spiraling in the depths of his bloodshot eyes.
“Sara.” My name falls from Chris’s lips before he throws his head back and growls in complete, utter anguish.