“Are you sure you’re not interested in buying the child?” she asks, suspiciously. I think she’s still testing him.
“Oh, I’m sure,” Niklas answers right away. Then he takes a cigarette from his jacket and lights it up in his mouth. “But I am still interested in viewing your cyprians.”
Francesca’s left eyebrow hitches up.
“You want to buy more than one girl? That can certainly be arranged.” Without looking away from Niklas, she calls out to the women in the hall, “I suggest you get in here and get this room cleaned.”
The women scurry into the room and start cleaning at once: stripping the bed of its bloody sheets, dusting, sweeping; they look terrified. I wonder if the housekeepers live here too. I wonder how many times they’ve all huddled together somewhere like they were doing in the hall as this spectacle with Sian went on, and plotted to escape; or plotted to kill Francesca—too afraid to do either.
“Maybe,” Niklas says. “And if not this time around, I’d still like to see the merchandise, for a future purchase.”
Yeah, not this time around because you’ve spent all of the client’s money on the wrong girl.
The cyprians are brought to the mansion minutes later; Miz Ghita comes in to alert Francesca of their arrival downstairs.
“Why don’t you follow me,” Francesca tells Niklas. “No, please leave your girls here. I would like a chance to speak with you privately.”
Niklas nods and then looks to me. “Stay here with Aya and Lia while I talk with the Madam.”
I nod reluctantly, timidly, making sure my Naomi mask is still securely in place. When he starts to walk away, I step up behind him and grab his hand for added effect. He stops and turns to face me.
“Please don’t leave me alone…long,” I whisper, but not so low that Francesca can’t hear me.
Niklas leans in and presses his lips to mine. He pulls away and I open my eyes, looking up at him, pretending to be afraid.
“No one will hurt her here,” I hear Francesca say, but I never take my eyes off Niklas’s. “Shelia,” she calls out, and one of the housekeepers stops dusting and stands attentive. “Fetch two guards and have them stand outside this room. No one leaves or enters it other than your crew.”
“Yes, Madam,” the housekeeper says, and then hurries out the door.
Moments later, Niklas is leaving with Francesca. I look at Sian still lying unconscious on the floor. And then I look at Nora, still the most obedient slave girl I’ve ever seen in my life. I don’t know how she does it; she just stands there with her hands folded down in front of her; her head lowered, always looking at the floor; never showing fear, uneasiness, even discomfort. After everything that has happened, Nora Kessler has played her role seemingly without coming close to breaking character for even a second. It fascinates me and disturbs me at the same time. Could I ever really be just like her? Would I want to? She would’ve let that girl die for the sake of her role—I believe that. But that’s what makes her so good. Nora Kessler is a machine. Do I want to be that good? A machine? With no remorse, no conscience? Unable to feel pain because I refuse to let it in by way of emotions? Do I really want to be like her? I want to say no, because it’s the human thing to do.
I want to say no…but why can’t I?
I refuse all four of the cyprians brought in for my private showing—none of them were Olivia Bram. Didn’t expect otherwise.
Miz Ghita escorts them out of the small room, leaving Francesca and me alone for the first time. Just me and her, sitting together in a room that’s surprisingly devoid of the typical white everything. Two walls; the one behind and in front of me are filled from floor to ceiling with books. The floors are hardwood; the furniture black. I take a seat on the sofa offered me and make myself comfortable.
I’m worried about leaving Izzy alone in this place. I know she can handle herself to an extent, and—I can’t believe I’m going to say this—I know she’ll stay in character, but it’s Emilio who worries me. I just bought—and hit—the woman who I think he might be in love with, and who just gave birth to his kid—aside from his sister, I’m his least favorite person in this mansion. ‘Naomi’, as everyone here already knows, is my weak spot. And Emilio is the type to go straight for the weak spot.
This meeting can’t last long—it’s been too long already.
“Now that we are alone,” Francesca says, sitting on the sofa next to me; she hands me a glass of whiskey, “I’ve been dying to have you elaborate on some things.”
“What things?” I take a sip and set the glass down on the end table.
Francesca scoots closer.
“You said something earlier tonight,” she begins, “about a family betrayal”—she twirls her hand at the wrist—“that your brother betrayed you? I cannot help but feel empathetic.” You don’t know the meaning of the word.
“We have much in common,” she adds.
“Yes, we seem to,” I say. No, we have nothing in common—you’re a fruitcake.
“I can’t help but want to dig deeper inside that head of yours,” she goes on. “We are both dominant souls who thrive on power; we both revel in punishment; we have both been betrayed by our brothers, and it seems we both have a weakness we cannot hide.”
“Emilio and Naomi,” I say, knowing.
She nods; her hand rests on my inner thigh. She wears a lot of perfume—I fucking hate that stinking shit; give me a woman’s natural scent any day.
“When it comes to love,” she says, “we cannot change who our hearts want.”
“No, we can’t,” I say, and then I feel my mind drifting, slipping away into a recent memory. A forbidden memory.
I blink back into the moment. Then I reach for the whiskey glass and gulp the contents of it down in one drink.
“Let’s talk about something else, shall we?” she suggests. “I gather that love is a sensitive topic for you—it is for me as well; I like to avoid it as you do. Tell me about your brother, then.”
I snort, shaking my head and wishing I didn’t just drink down the last of my whiskey.
“Unfortunately,” I say with a mock smile, “the topic of my brother’s betrayal and the one about love are pretty much the same fucking thing.” I put up my hand quickly, ending an accusation before it begins. “Of course, I didn’t have the same…problem that you have with your brother.”
Francesca smiles slimly.
“Well what did your brother do?” she asks.
“He killed the woman I loved.” Why am I telling her this shit so freely? So easily? It took Jackie longer than this to get anything out of me and I had been fucking her for weeks. Maybe it’s because Francesca is a complete stranger, and I’ll never see her again after all of this is over. Because she’ll be dead. Maybe I just need to get it all out. Oh nice—I choose a lunatic as a psychologist.
“Ah, I see.” Francesca crosses her legs; her hand remains on my inner thigh. “But why would he do such a thing? Were you not close as brothers?”
“We were always close,” I tell her, thinking of Victor, mourning our severed relationship, knowing that I can never truly forgive him and that nothing between us will ever be the same. “And he killed her because he thought he was protecting me.”
“The older brother?”
“And do you still have a relationship with this older, protective brother?”
I hesitate before answering, “A working one, it seems.”
“You work for him?”
“I work with him,” I establish quickly. “Or, at least that’s the way things are supposed to be”—I shake my head—“but I’ve always felt more…beneath him than beside him.” I look off at the wall—I need to leave. Soon.
“Ah, yes,” she says. “The leader of the wolf pack, your brother. The alpha male. Getting all the respect and glory.” She smiles. “He should be careful; wolves are protective, territorial—but also cannibalistic. Should your brother show weakness, step into a snare trap, he will be torn apart by the other wolves. And then you will become the alpha.”
Francesca’s hand slides away from my thigh and she stands from the sofa. She ties her bloody white robe closed in front of me, but I take nothing from the gesture other than an involuntary action.
“Family bonds,” she says, pacing slowly, “can be a tricky thing. I have eight sisters and only one brother; my mother hates every one of us—except for Valentina; Valentina is her favorite. She is the eldest; she was supposed to be in my place as Madam, but I was chosen over her by our father.” She smiles, looking off at the wall, appearing briefly lost in a memory, or maybe a face. She grins. “But I am my father’s favorite, and what my father wants trumps my wretched mother’s wishes.” She pauses as if to savor that truth and then says, “But I have learned in my time living with my sisters, all of whom want what I have, that to be my own person so I’m not forced to live in their shadow, I have to play dirty, and let nothing nor anyone get in the way or I could end up kissing my mother’s ass like Valentina does. I could end up kissing my older sister’s ass.”