And so I do.
And I don’t stop.
I…I can’t think straight.
The searing crack! of the leather striking Nora’s back breaks the kiss, and when it does, Izabel is looking at me, unblinking, her moist lips parted slightly just as mine are, close enough I can still feel her breath on my mouth.
“You’re a liar, Niklas Augustin.”
My gaze breaks away from Izabel—thankfully—to find Francesca on her throne; I look up at her quizzically.
Francesca smiles, knowing. Knowing something.
My heart is in my throat—has our cover been blown somehow? I need my gun. Fuck! I need someone’s gun. Panic chokes me from the inside and I feel my eyes searching the vicinity for a weapon though without actually moving my eyes; but on the surface I’m as cool and confident as I ever was.
“You told me you loved no one,” Francesca says and relief washes over me in a wave. She smiles, glancing at Izabel only briefly. “Your feelings for that one run deep—the kiss betrayed you.”
I smirk at her. “Believe what you want,” I say casually, straightening the lapel of my suit jacket.
“I believe you’re a good liar,” she points out, “but your ability to hide your feelings is atrocious.” Her smile stretches; her dark eyes sweep over me deviously, as if she’s picking me apart, trying to figure me out and knowing she’s doing a fine fucking job at it. Well she’s crazy—I don’t have feelings for Izabel; I’d rather…(I swallow hard and round my chin)…in Izzy’s words: I’d rather it burn when I piss.
Another crack! zips through the air.
I get up from the sofa.
“Emilio,” I call out, approaching him from behind, “why don’t you let me show you how it’s done.” It was an insistence, not a question; I reach out my hand to him for the whip and he stares at me with a deadly combination of humiliation and rage. It was my plan all along, telling him he could punish Nora for me; I wanted another opportunity to show Emilio up in front of his sister. And it couldn’t have come at a better time: I need to reverse the weakness Francesca thinks she found in me—feelings for Izabel—and I need to get the hell away from Izabel. More importantly, the heavier I step on her brother’s toes, the less inclined she’ll be to listen to his opinions; and since Emilio is closest to her and the one who distrusts me the most, it’s vital I continuously prove I’m the alpha in the room.
Nora stands facing the wall, her arms raised high above her head, her palms pressed flat against the white paint. Two angry stripes, red and swollen, lay across her back, the newest ones amid a myriad of old wounds and still-healing ones. Her long white-blond hair covers most of them. I take the whip from Emilio’s hand, ignoring the looks of hatred he’s shooting me with, and step behind Nora, the whip in my hand pressing between her naked thighs. I reach up with my free hand and move her hair away from her back, gently draping it over her right shoulder. “Remember that day,” I whisper against her ear from behind, my chest pressing against her back, “in that room surrounded by walls, just you and me and an old scar that you dug your fingernail under, twisting and moving, until the scar peeled away from the skin and blood ran down my chest?” I shove the whip upward between her legs so she can feel the rigid leather between her nether lips. Then in a voice that Emilio can actually hear, I say to Nora, “Answer me,” and then pull away from her ear.
“Yes, Master, Aya remembers her mistake with the girl. Aya shouldn’t have humiliated you.”
I step away from her. Farther. Farther. And then I crack the whip against Nora’s back. Again. And again. And again. Nora never moves, never makes a sound, and I have to wonder if beating her has affected her at all. I stop at five lashes because, like I said earlier, I’m here on business and don’t want to waste time with other issues.
Placing the whip in Emilio’s hand as if he were like any other slave girl in the room, I approach Nora again, just like before, my mouth against her ear. “I should sell your ass to these crazy people—you’d fit right in,” I whisper so no one can hear but her. “I don’t know what my brother wants with you, or why he brought you into our Order—don’t fucking tell me it was Izzy’s decision, because I know that’s bullshit; even if she wanted you here I know you wouldn’t be here if my brother didn’t want you to be. I know him better than anyone.” Fitting my hand around the back of Nora’s neck, I squeeze with aggression, shoving the side of her face against the wall—she doesn’t flinch. “I may hate him for what he did to Claire, your sister, but he’s still my brother and I still watch his back.” I trace my tongue down the shell of her ear, move my hand from the back of her neck and to her throat, squeezing. “And nobody fucks my brother over but me. Nobody will have their vengeance on my brother for any wrong he’s ever done, but me.” I release her harshly.
I have to wonder if that’s why Nora is really here—to get back at Victor for killing her sister. She could’ve killed him and even Izabel by now already, but who’s to say that’s her way? Revenge can be dealt in many forms; and the easiest, less satisfying way of exacting it is to just get it over quickly. Nora Kessler doesn’t strike me as the getting-it-over-quickly type.
“Naomi,” I say, “bring Aya her dress.”
Izabel gets up from the sofa with the dress in her hand, and as we pass each other moving in opposite directions we lock eyes briefly, accidentally, and then look away just as fast.
Miz Ghita enters the room; I had been watching the elevator rise to the top floor on my way back to the sofa. She looks at me coldly, says nothing, and heads straight for Francesca. She stops at the bottom of the dais steps, her decorated fingers interlocked down in front of her.
“The girls will be here soon,” Miz Ghita announces to Francesca. “I have to warn you, Daughter, the one from House Five, the one we believe will be the most suitable for Mr. Augustin, wasn’t very cooperative. She had three of her high-paying customers today that she was forced to cancel to come here.”
“Oh yes, House Five.” Francesca smiles thoughtfully. “She is a feisty one.” Her darkly-painted eyes fall on me. “But Mr. Augustin revels in that sort of thing, so the more she fights, the better.”
“Mother,” Emilio speaks up, walking past me, purposely invading my space, “why don’t you bring Ela up to join us; I think she’s waited in her room long enough; she’ll be punished here”—he glances back at me—“in front of our guests, just like her clumsy counterpart was.”
Miz Ghita looks at Francesca for her approval. Francesca nods.
“Very well,” Miz Ghita says, but nothing about her demeanor, all tensed up, suggests she agrees with the idea. Then without another word she makes her way back to the elevator.
“Let’s talk money, Niklas,” Francesca says. The girl doing her makeup adds a few finishing touches and then steps away from her to stand by the other girl who finished her hair seconds ago.
Francesca looks at my briefcase on the floor.
Izabel and Nora finally take their seats again; Izzy on the sofa; Nora at my feet, no longer naked.
Lifting the briefcase, I place it evenly on the top of my thighs. I move my thumb over the little gold mechanisms, up and down, to set the numbered code in place and then flip the locks open on each side. Emilio steps over and looms in front of me, looking down into the case at nearly one million dollars packed neatly inside.
“Go ahead,” I offer, waving my hand over the cash and raising the briefcase toward him, “check it out if you want; I assure you it’s real.”
I lean casually against the sofa, stretch my arms across the back. Emilio takes the briefcase, supporting it on the palm of one hand. “Could’ve fit a little more in here,” he says, his unimpressed gaze moving over the bills.
“Yeah, and it did,” I say. “That’s one million minus the twenty thousand I paid to meet with your mother, and the fifty thousand I paid to meet with your sister.” I smile at him and add smartly, “I bet you hate it that having your audience is free.”
“Niklas,” Francesca interrupts—she saw the same fed-up look of murder in her brother that I just saw and is trying to thwart a retaliation, “you do realize that my girls are not cheap, not even my cyprians. I hope you don’t think that because they are considered damaged goods, that you’re going to get off with some kind of”—she twirls her hand at the wrist—“discounted price. And since you made the mistake of letting me know how much you want a damaged girl, I get to charge you more for her than I might otherwise.”
“It wasn’t a mistake,” I tell her. “I wanted you to know exactly what I need, and that my preference is important to me so that I get what I want. Just like I told Miz Ghita at the restaurant: money is no issue.”
“Then perhaps we’ll charge you more than you have,” Emilio speaks up, setting the briefcase harshly back onto my legs.
I look only at Francesca.
“You could,” I tell her. “But then if you fuck me like that, I’ll most certainly be taking my money to that ‘incompetent woman who doesn’t know the first thing about this business’ the next time I’m looking to buy.”