When she’d been captured by the government, the doctors and nurses had all treated her like an object. Not a woman, not a person. Just a fertile thing to be used and exploited.
The ink sickened her.
She’d expected to feel that way about Draven’s touch, but now, she wondered exactly how it would feel.
There’d been talk.
No one dared say anything to his face, or make a move against him, but he knew. Draven always knew. If he wasn’t at least one step ahead of everyone else, he wouldn’t be where he was now. Weak men didn’t survive in the new world.
A rogue group within his walls planned to make a play for Ashley. He’d heard the whispers, the rumors, and felt the tension. They’d sell her to the floundering government for the promised bounty. Maybe even fill her with their seed before handing her over.
The shed where they kept preserves had a stash of weapons being concealed in the back under heavy black tarps. They were planning something soon. He feigned being oblivious, but he’d be ready for them.
Over the past several weeks, he’d allowed Ashley more freedom around the complex. Daily walks, visits with Luanna in the gardens, and private time in the library. He always ensured he was close by, keeping a careful eye on her and everyone nearby. Now he had to rethink her liberties. Until he found out exactly who he could trust, she wasn’t safe.
After all he’d done for the men and women under his care, if pissed him off that they’d turn on him for the promise of wealth. Greed, it seemed, was stronger than loyalty for some. When he discovered who’d been plotting against him, Draven would make an example, one that would never be forgotten. He’d make his message ruthlessly clear: mess with his woman, and die a slow, painful death. There could be no exceptions.
The annoying friend ambushed him just inside the kitchen doors. He exhaled.
“She’s in my room.” He moved around her, preparing a tray of food to bring with him. Fresh grapes, slices of fresh cheese, crackers, and cherry pie.
“But it’s two o’clock. She always spends time with me now,” said Luanna.
He ground his teeth together. The only reason he tolerated this woman was for Ashley’s sake. She grated on his nerves. If it were up to him, he’d have sent her packing weeks ago. “Not today.”
She kept following him, trailing along like a bratty child. “Why not?”
“That’s my concern. When things are safe, she’ll be free to resume your daily visits.”
He’d said too much already. There was nothing to explain, and his information was sensitive. Draven wasn’t sure who he could trust, but he hoped the traitors weren’t any of his close men. He ignored her, filling his tray with things he knew Ashley loved. Her happiness did something to him, chipping away at all the hardened bitterness that had built up over the years.
“Did someone try to hurt her? Is she okay?”
He left the kitchen, heading to the stairs. When she wouldn’t stop questioning him, he nodded to Luke, who’d been standing guard near the gates. He promptly escorted Luanna away, despite her protests.
Little natural light illuminated the stone stairwell. It was only the afternoon, but a storm was just on the horizon, blackening the sky, making it feel more like twilight. They’d been prepping for the monster storm all day, protecting the gardens, and securing everything that the wind could potentially damage. It wasn’t far off now. He could smell it in the air, the promise of rain bringing back memories from the battlefields. Did he have any good memories left? The older he got, the more everything in his life blurred into one sick nightmare he wanted to forget.
He opened the heavy wooden door, the hinges creaking, and entered his room. The glass patio doors were open wide, the brisk breeze fluttering the white sheers.
“Ashley?” Draven set down the tray of food on one of the dressers and approached the Juliet balcony. Ashley leaned over the iron railing, staring off into the distance.
She turned when he touched her shoulder. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you.”
“It’s a good storm.” He nodded to the skies and heavy clouds rolling in. “We could lose power.”
“Is that why I’m not allowed downstairs?” She looked up at him with those big blue eyes, full of innocence and trust. He could crush her so easily, but all he wanted to do was protect her.
“Partly.” He strode back into the room, not wanting to lie to her, but also not ready to terrify her with the possibilities. He wanted to be her protector.
“Draven?” She kept up pace behind him. Even though his room was huge, he couldn’t escape her. He stopped and turned, holding her shoulders.
“When you came here, you knew the world was a dangerous place for a woman like you. For a fertile.”