Sian, still on her knees with her hair in Francesca’s hand looks to and from Niklas and Emilio’s black dress shoes, not daring to look up at him, her eyes darting back and forth, her breath quick and heavy. The baby in Valentina’s arms makes a suckling sound as it feeds from Valentina’s breast. Emilio, slow to move any part of his body, stunned by the turn of events, stares at Niklas with a blank, unreadable face.
Francesca observes Niklas with heavy suspicion.
She steps away from Emilio, leaving him with the knife, and pulls Sian’s hair, tightening her one-handed grip. Then she drags her across the floor again, this time toward us. Sian’s arms shoot up, hooking around Francesca’s wrist, but she’s too weak to break free—Francesca is as strong as she looks.
“I’d rather you kill me!” Sian screams. “Don’t take me away from my baby!”
Francesca releases Sian’s hair and stands tall over her, daring her to move. Sian, knowing there’s nothing she can do, that no matter how hard she fights there’s no way she’s getting out of this room.
“You want to buy her?” Francesca says, as if she doesn’t believe it. She smiles. “She’s not even one of my cyprians; she’s been one of Emilio’s favorite girls, hasn’t seen the outside of my estate in ten years to have been fucked by anyone other than my brother.” She steps into Niklas’s space, sizing him up; I take a step back to stand next to Nora. “She doesn’t fit your criteria, Mr. Augustin.” Formalities again? That’s not a good sign. “I’m beginning to think you want to save her.” Instinctively I go to reach for Pearl, only to stop myself, realizing I’m weaponless.
Niklas smiles slimly, unaffected by her taunts, her accusations. “Paranoia, Madam Moretti,” Niklas says, offering her the same formalities, “it really is a blemish you could do without. But you’re right in a sense: I do want to save her, but not necessarily from your blade; I’d like to save her for mine.” Niklas’s gaze falls on Sian. Then he steps around Francesca and begins to pace slowly around Sian on the floor; his hands clasped on his backside.
“You said yourself that she was a whore,” Niklas points out. “A true whore—were those not your words?” He stops pacing for a second, long enough to look back at Francesca with a perceptive smile alight in his face. “I think anyone who has been spreading her legs for someone like your brother for ten years, has probably been doing the same for any man who works in this place. She’s a survivor, Miz Moretti”—Sian lowers her forehead to the floor—“I knew a girl like her once, forced into a life of bondage, raped by men who she knew would kill her if she ever told her master; forced to feel certain…feelings for a man who showed her affection because it was the only way she knew how to stay alive.” I swallow. Hard. And I hate him for those words I know were about me. And yet, I care for him in ways I don’t understand. He stops pacing in front of the girl’s head; her long black hair lies disheveled against the bright white floor; the toes of his shiny dress shoes touch the tips of her fingers. He looks down at her as he speaks. “And now, after giving birth to a baby she’ll never hold, or feed, or touch, or name, or sing lullabies to because I have absolutely no interest in buying a goddamned child, she’ll fight more than ever when I take her away. And she’ll hate me immensely for it.” His head turns to Francesca. There’s a dark smile playing discreetly in his features. “This one, Miz Moretti, is precisely the kind of flawed whore I’m looking for.”
Sian draws her hands toward her face and she sobs into her palms; her back, covered by a white gown, bounces as she trembles; she curls into a fetal position and wails, stirring the attention of her newborn child suckling the breast of another woman just feet from her. Again, I notice the women in the hall crossing their chests and mouthing prayers. And again, I witness more of the real Emilio as he stands feet away with a knife in his hand and a gaping hole in his heart, unable to make use of either. He knows that if he speaks out against any of this, if he refuses to let Niklas take Sian, that his wicked sister will kill her. And maybe he knows too that if he kills Francesca, that Sian will die anyway because neither of them will get out of the mansion alive.
Letting Niklas buy her, probably nowhere on Emilio’s list of options, is the only option he has.
But he doesn’t like it—rage lies beneath the surface of his face, seething, growing, harder and harder to contain, but like me, he continues to play his role.
Francesca appears to contemplate Niklas’s offer. She looks to her sister. Valentina shrugs lightly, patting the baby carefully against its exposed back. Then Francesca turns to Niklas again, glances briefly at the briefcase in his hand.
“I will sell the girl to you,” she says, “for everything you have left in that case of yours.”
Everything? But then what will we use to buy or bargain with for Olivia Bram? Victor’s money? He will be pissed.
Niklas holds the briefcase out to Francesca and she takes it. Sian scrambles to her knees; she reaches up with both hands and grasps the legs of Niklas’s dress pants, pulling and fingering the fabric into her fists. “Please, if you buy me, buy my baby! I’m begging you, Master, please!” Her voice is hoarse from crying and screaming so much. “PLEASE!” she roars up at Niklas and her voice cracks.
Niklas crouches down in front of her, slowly, with such ease and power. He cocks his head to one side, studying her; then to the other side. He reaches out and brushes her cheek with the back of his fingers. Then the other cheek. Then he moves away a few strands of hair that lay across her forehead, tucking them behind her ear, taking his time. Her dark blue eyes are rimmed with red; the whites of her eyes streaked and mapped by little inflamed veins; tears track down her cheeks, drip from her chin. Niklas touches the bruised skin under her left eye with the pad of his thumb, gently and with as much disingenuous comfort as Francesca had meant to give the baby when trying to calm it.
“From now on,” Niklas says in a calm, frightening voice, “you will be known as Lia.” His thumb moves to her mouth, tracing her bottom lip and stopping in the center, pulling the lip gently away from her teeth. Sian swallows desperately; she stares directly into his eyes, knowing that her new master compels it. “You will speak only when spoken to; you will do anything and everything I tell you to do, and you will do it to my satisfaction or you will be”—he licks the dryness from his lips—“punished in ways that will make you wish I had let the Madam kill you.” He leans in and touches his lips to hers ever so gently, as if he’s savoring the taste of her on his mouth, his new toy that he can’t wait to take home and open. Every part of her. Physically and emotionally. For a moment I forget who he is; I’m so quietly shocked by his act that I’m beginning to wonder if it’s still an act at all; my heart is pounding violently in my chest.
“W-What about my baby? Please buy my baby!”
Niklas’s big hand crushes the girl’s throat. He rises into a towering stand, lifting her from the floor and off her feet. My hand is over my mouth before I can stop it. Sian kicks her feet back and forth; blood trickles down the insides of her thighs; her hands grip Niklas’s wrists, trying desperately to pry his vise-grip fingers from her throat; her pale face begins to turn colors; her blue eyes bulge in her face. She gasps for air to fill her lungs with, but no matter how wide she opens her mouth, the air can’t get past Niklas’s hand.
Emilio starts to move forward, just a small step that Francesca doesn’t see because her back is to him, but then he stops when Niklas releases Sian and she falls against the floor, choking, gasping; the natural white color of her face coming back to the surface to replace the red and purple. She lies down on her side, helpless, hopeless, crying into her hands.
“Sister,” Francesca says to Valentina, “take the child away.”
“NO! DON’T TAKE HER—”
Niklas knocks Sian out cold, cutting her off. Emilio turns and leaves the room promptly, when—and because—I know that all he wants to do is kill Niklas. But he can’t unless he wants to give himself away and give Francesca reason to kill Sian.
“I’ve no clue what you see in such uncivilized behavior,” Francesca tells Niklas. Her robe has come apart; impossible not to be aware of it, though she doesn’t care and goes on talking with her naked body on display. “Challenge or not.”
Niklas grins. “I just like it when they fight,” he says.
Francesca grins right back at him, understanding, and then she gets back to business.
“One of the conditions of your purchase,” she says, “is that you get her out of this country no later than tomorrow afternoon.” Translation: I want her away from my brother whom I have an unhealthy obsession with on so many levels of crazy.
Tomorrow? We’re never going to find Olivia Bram—hell, I’m beginning to doubt we’re going to pull off kidnapping this insane woman.
“That’s when we planned to leave anyway,” Niklas says.
Francesca switches the briefcase to the opposite hand.