I screamed until my voice left me, the air no longer cooperating with my lungs. I burned everywhere. My blood sprayed against Brianne whose stifled scream replaced my own.

I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see. I was gone.

Chapter Fourteen

Stella

My mom stroked her warm hand down my face. Even in the dark I knew it was her. She whispered comforting words to me, telling me the pain was temporary and would fade. The sharp stings were far away now. Everything beneath me was soft, warm. I was loved. I was content.

My back was cool, numb. What happened?

I tried to tell her how much I missed her, how glad I was she was back. She’d been gone so long. Where had she gone?

“Shh, sleep now.” Mom pulled a blanket up to my waist, making my legs toasty.

“Go ahead and push more before she feels anything.” She was speaking to someone else now.

Deep dreamless sleep.

***

The sound of birds pulled me up from the pleasant darkness. Light streamed in through the windows of the room. I faintly recognized the walls, the windows, the quilts, all jogging my memories. I was lying on my stomach.

I blinked the sleep away and lifted my head. An aching pain shot through my back. I dropped my head back down with a groan.

“Stella.” It was my mother’s voice. No. No, it was Renee’s. Mom was dead.

“Renee?” I could barely speak, my voice hoarse.

Is there a tube in my arm?

“I’m here. Don’t worry. You’re healing up nicely. Do you want to go back under again?”

“Under?”

“Asleep. The Vinemont family doctor has been staying for the past three days and keeping you asleep so you could recover. I can have him put you out for longer if it bothers you too much.”

My mind was having trouble clicking into the ‘on’ position. An IV was suspended above me, some clear liquid dripping through it at a leisurely pace.

I shifted my head so I could see Renee. Her concerned face brought the flood of horror back. The ball, the tortures, Vinemont flaying the skin from my back.

A sob rose up and stuck in my dry throat.

Renee wrung her hands. “I’ll fetch Dr. Yarbrough.”

“No,” I croaked.

I fought the tears back, though a few escaped and dropped onto my white pillow. We were silent for a long time. The ball replayed through my mind like a particularly vivid nightmare—the masks, the cruelty, the violence, and the pain. More than anything, I remembered Vinemont, how he’d volunteered to whip me first, how he’d swung harder and harder until I blacked out from the pain.

Had I actually almost felt something for him? Each lash killed whatever twisted emotion had grown in my heart. I was glad. My feeling of betrayal was replaced with rage, raw anger. I added these to the box in my chest, the one where I had hidden away my sadness. It was full to bursting with every negative emotion I possessed. Still, I stuffed more inside, poisoning myself by saving the bitterness and hate.

I tried to calm my breathing. Anytime my lungs expanded too fully, my back felt as if it would rip apart. Renee looked almost as white as my pillowcase and kept wringing her hands.

“Vinemont?”

“I haven’t seen him. Not since he brought you back. He was, well, he was in a bad way. Lucius and Teddy had to come get him.”

“Tired out from whipping me, was he?”

“No, not that. It did something to him. I don’t know.”

“Did something to him, huh?” I tried to yell, but it only came out in a hoarse burst of sound. The effort made my back scream.

“I meant. I-I meant—” She rose abruptly and came to take my hand.

I wanted to rip it away, but I didn’t dare move.

“I mean, I’ve never seen him like that. He kept begging me to fix it, to heal you. He tried to clean your wounds himself before Dr. Yarbrough arrived. He wouldn’t let anyone else touch you. He sat here with you and told you he was sorry over and over. He wouldn’t leave. Not until Lucius and Teddy came. Only Teddy could get through to him. I haven’t seen Mr. Sinclair since.”

I couldn’t imagine any of what she was saying. Remorse seemed a completely foreign emotion to Vinemont. The way he’d whipped me was an assault on more than just my body. He’d struck at my soul, instilling dread so deeply that I didn’t know if I’d ever recover.

When I’d hurt myself, it gave me a release, a chance at oblivion. When he’d done it, he trapped me even more inside myself. Every lash was a fresh set of bars, hemming me in and holding me captive. If he could do that to me, what else would he be willing to do to win the Acquisition? And what was even required to win?

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