Black Wings & Stolen Things: Chapter 38

RIONACH

As it turns out, waiting for your husband to kill your father and then come home to you isn’t as fun as it sounds. I know, who could have seen that coming? It was a disappointing discovery for me as well because I really thought this was going to be my version of Disneyland. Insert warning for sarcasm here.

It’s the opposite of fun. It’s torture because while I’m stuck up here doing another rendition of my princess locked in the tower act, he’s out there doing God knows what. He’s been gone for over an hour, and there’s still no update. From anyone. The exasperated look on Mathis’s face when I asked again if he’d heard from Nova or Emeric was proof of how incessant I’m being.

But I don’t care. I don’t think I’m going to be able to breathe normally again until my husband is standing directly in front of me.

For the first half hour he was gone, I tried to make good use of my time. I showered and changed out of the clothes I’d been wearing for nearly twenty-four hours.

My brain is a hornet’s nest of different thoughts and emotions.

It’s because one of those thoughts said something about looking nice for Emeric when he gets home that I changed into a dark floral-print dress and my favorite black jacket. Is this really a situation in which you need to look your best in? Nope. Did I spend an extra five minutes on my makeup than usual just to get the winged eyeliner perfect anyway? Yes.

Dressing up didn’t make any sense, but all I know is it was a lot better when I was actively doing something than now when all I’m doing is pacing in front of our bedroom windows. The very thought of having to participate in surface-level small talk if I go hang out in the kitchen with Anneli and Mathis keeps me upstairs. I can’t go talk about how the weather is changing from winter to spring, when what I really want to talk about is how they think Emeric will choose to kill my father. And that, my friends, is what we call an inside thought. You have to be very selective about who you share those with because people can be judgmental little shits.

So, instead, I pace, and while I do, Cerberus watches diligently from his place by the bedroom door. I think he knows something is going on because he seems to be on higher alert than usual. When I had briefly gone downstairs to ask for an update, his pointed ears flattened closer to his head and his lip curled up to show off his sharp white teeth when he’d looked at Mathis and Anneli. The pair had balked back a step as they shared an uneasy look between them. It didn’t seem to put them at ease when I told them the dog is probably just reacting to the energy I’m giving off.

With the entire width of Central Park visible from these windows, I’ve been periodically looking toward the east side where I know The Daria is only a few blocks from. I can’t see the actual building from here, but that hasn’t stopped me from looking in its general direction as if I’m miraculously going to get a clue about what is happening there.

I’ve lost count of how many laps I’ve made of this side of the room, but I’ve got to be closing in on two hundred when I look up from the wood floors and out the window again.

My boot-covered feet turn into lead blocks, and I almost fall on my face as I stumble through my next step. Barely recovered and still unstable on my legs, I surge toward the window until my hands and forehead are pressed against the cool glass.

That spot I’ve been staring longingly at in the distance now has black clouds of smoke rising above it. My optimistic side tries to tell me anything could be burning and it’s not The Daria with Emeric trapped inside of it, but the logical and slightly cynical half knows the chances of that smoke belonging to anything else are slim to none. The timing would be too weird for a building nearby to randomly catch fire when my father was seen sniffing around the hotel.

Heart a cold lump of stone in my stomach and my throat suddenly tight, I force myself to turn away from the window. I need to go to Mathis. He’ll know what’s going on.

I make it to the second floor of the penthouse just as the soldier comes sprinting up the stairs from the main floor.

“Is it the hotel?” I ask breathlessly before he has a chance to open his mouth. “Is The Daria burning?”

His nod is robotic. “There was an explosion in the basement of the building. The chatter on the police scanners is that almost the whole building came down.”

I can’t mourn for the now scorched memories Emeric shared with his mother at that hotel. Not yet. Not until I know whether or not my husband was in that building when it came down. “Have you heard from anyone? Is anyone hurt?” Are they all dead? “Was Emeric—was my husband—in the building when it exploded.”

The way the stoic soldier’s face pales makes my insides twist painfully. “I haven’t heard anything, but we need to go. Now.” He shifts down a stair step and motions for me to follow him.

“Go where?”

“Just like he told you; you’re to go to the cabin outside the city. That was Emeric’s order to me if anything like this happened. It’s my job to get you there safely. If he’s okay, your husband will meet us there as soon as he can.”

If he’s okay… I forcibly swallow the bile rising.

He’s telling me the exact same information that Emeric told me before he left but still, my gut tells me we should wait here. At least for a little while longer, just until we hear something. Anything. If Emeric is injured, I don’t want to be over an hour away from whatever hospital he’ll end up at. What if I can’t get back to him in time?

My head starts shaking as all these thoughts twist and turn through my dread-soaked brain. “No, not yet. We need to wait until someone calls us.”

I swear he looks mad at me for refusing. “Mrs. Banes. That is not what the boss wanted you to do, and you know it. Now please, we have to go. Anneli is waiting downstairs already.”

“Anneli is going too?” I mumble mainly to myself. This is a new kind of fear. This isn’t an ‘I’m worried for my own health and safety’ fear. This is a deliberating, soul-soaking type of fear that has me feeling frozen in place.

He isn’t hurt. He can’t be. He’ll be home soon and then we can live out the rest of our messy lives together.

“Of course she is.” Mathis’s eyes turn scrutinizing. “Mrs. Banes, please don’t make me carry you out of this building. I don’t want to do it, but I will if you force my hand. I don’t have time for this—we don’t have time for this. We have no idea what is happening over there, and we can’t stay here much longer. We need to move.”

It goes against everything my soul is screaming at me, but reluctantly I nod. “Okay.” Forcing my feet to move, I turn away from the staircase and move down the hallway toward the laundry room.

“Ma’am, where are you going?”

I snag the leather leash off the hook just inside the doorway before releasing a short but sharp whistle. “Cerberus, hier!” Here. The large dog bounds down the hallway and sits patiently at my feet while I connect the clip to his collar. Since the day I took him on my little field trip to see Ophelia, I’ve been secretly learning German commands. I figured it may come in handy one day and I also found myself wanting to impress Emeric. Which I suppose is a little silly considering what we’ve been dealing with all these weeks.

The same uneasy look that was on Mathis’s face earlier when the Doberman bared his teeth at him is back, and this time it’s more severe. He coughs nervously. “I don’t know if bringing the dog is a good idea. Emeric didn’t say anything about him accompanying us.”

“Cerberus goes where I go. If you want me to voluntarily leave this building, the dog is coming. If not, I’m more than happy to stay here while you take off to the cabin by yourself, but I’ll warn you, if my husband does show up and he finds that I’m not there with you…” I raise a challenging brow and wait for him to draw his own conclusion about how that will go over for him.

“Fine,” he grits out. “Let’s go. I’m already late.”

I start to follow him down the stairs. “Late? I didn’t realize that this was going to be a timed event.”

He doesn’t answer me.


INTUITION IS A FUNNY THING.

These days, I think a lot of people mistake it for simple anxiety and disregard it, but in reality, it’s an innate skill that’s helped keep humanity alive for thousands of years. It signals to your body that something is wrong before your brain has a chance to catch up.

I can’t tell you specifically what’s making me feel this way, but I know in my very bones that something isn’t right. Well, duh, something isn’t right. There’s a chance that Emeric is trapped under the rubble of a collapsed building, and my father and his crazy Russian sidekick could be coming for me so I can tie our families together through a less-than-holy union with Bogdan.

It’s wild to think that for so many years all I longed for was to be wanted by my family. By someone. And now I have four men fighting to retain me from the man who stole me away. No, not stole. Saved. Emeric saved me.

The hour-long drive out of the city is an agonizingly slow and silent one. In the front seats, Mathis and Anneli shared a couple looks I couldn’t fully decipher. The one thing I managed to confirm is that there is definitely something more to Mathis and Anneli’s relationship than just coworkers. Those two know each other on an intimate level. You can’t have full conversations consisting of only shared looks without knowing each other deeply.

We turn down a familiar dirt road lined with tall, sun-obstructing trees. The last time I arrived on this property I was handcuffed and blindfolded, but when I left the following day with Emeric, I took in all the details that I’d been forced to miss. Given the reasoning behind my arrival now, I’m struggling to find the same serene beauty in the land as I did before. It’s dark and ominous without Emeric here.

When we reach the impressive metal gate, Mathis rolls to a stop and leans out the window to enter a code.

It’s not until we’ve driven through, the metal clanging shut behind us, do I notice what’s so clearly missing. “Why isn’t there a guard posted at the gate?” When I arrived and left the property last time, there was an armed guard posted at the entrance. There isn’t another soul in sight now.

Something is wrong! the intuitive voice screams at me. My hand, which has been wrapped around the leather leash attached to the dog sitting tensely on the seat next to me, tightens.

Mathis’s eyes meet mine in the rearview mirror. “The boss called a bunch of people off their regular posts today to help with whatever is happening at the hotel and nightclub.”

That doesn’t make any sense. With Tiernan and Bogdan still strung up in the basement here, Emeric wouldn’t risk removing security away from the property. Not when Niall and Koslov have no doubt been searching the state for their kids for the past three days. Bogdan is also crafty. His chance of trying to escape on his own is too high for Emeric to not have guards posted at every possible point. No matter how dire the situation is in the city, Emeric is too damn smart to leave this property without guards.

The alarm bells that had only been making vague warning noises in the back of my head during the drive are now blaring like tornado sirens.

Refusing to shy away from Mathis’s stare, I look at him in the mirror and nod. “Oh, okay. That makes sense.” Keep playing dumb, Rio, and let them underestimate you.

The road, which has turned into dark gray gravel that crunches beneath the tires, is the only sound that fills the inside of the car as we slowly make our way toward the cabin on the backside of the land.

It’s not until the sharp roofline of the black A-frame “cabin” comes into view does Mathis speak again. “Emeric will do whatever it takes to protect his family.”

My eyebrows draw together. “I know he will. That’s what he’s doing right now. Protecting his family.” The erratically pounding organ in my chest warms at the knowledge that I’m now Emeric’s family.

For a tense couple of seconds, Mathis flicks his attention between the mirror and the road in front of him. “I have a son. Did you know that?”

“No, I didn’t.” Aside from the limited information I learned about Anneli, I don’t know anything personal about any of Emeric’s employees, but I think this was done on purpose.

“Most don’t since I’ve always tried my damnedest to keep him away from the world I’ve chosen to work in,” he explains. “His name is Soren and he’s almost six. His mother died during childbirth, and until I brought Anneli home, I was the only family he had.”

I shift uneasily in my seat as a new wave of dread falls over my shoulders. The weight is nearly unbearable. “I’m sorry to hear about his mother,” I tell him after clearing my throat. “And I’m glad Anneli could become a part of his life, but you don’t exactly strike me as the type of man who wants to bond over family trauma. I don’t understand why you’re telling me about this now, Mathis.”

He pulls to a stop in front of the silent and still-looking house. The second he puts the car in park, I have my seat belt undone. Both of them follow suit in the front seat.

With a weary sigh, he scrubs his hand over his tense face. “I’m telling you this, Mrs. Banes, because I’m also a man who will do whatever it takes to keep his family safe.”

The words are barely out of his mouth before the sound of a gun cocking fills the inside of the SUV. It doesn’t come from Mathis’s hand, but from Anneli. In her perfectly manicured hand is a small revolver that is pointed directly at my chest.

A guttural and downright chilling warning snarl rips out of the Doberman’s chest when he, too, sees the weapon. My whole body lurches when Anneli redirects the weapon at Cerberus.

“No!” I shout, trying my best to block the animal with my body.

Mathis turns in the front seat. “He wasn’t supposed to be here! I gave you so many chances to keep him away, but you didn’t listen. Your damn dog could have been far away at the container yard, but you threw a tantrum like a goddamn child when I tried to send him there, and you didn’t listen when I told you to leave him at home today. If you can’t rein him in, I will kill him. I won’t have a choice. There’s too much on the line.”

He doesn’t want Cerberus here because he’s against killing an animal. He doesn’t want him here because he knows the highly trained dog is a threat to him and whatever his endgame is here.

“Cerberus, halt.” Stop. I keep myself positioned slightly in front of him just in case. My focus remains locked on the woman with the gun—the woman I thought could be my friend one day—while I ask the man beside her, “What are you doing?”

“I’m protecting my family.”

“They took Soren six days ago,” Anneli’s accented voice breaks. “He’s innocent in all of this. Just a child. We couldn’t let anything happen to him.”

The heartbroken and terror-riddled look on her face is an expression only a mother can wear.

Aside from Nova, Emeric doesn’t bring his employees up in casual conversation. Emeric runs a tight ship, and I will be admittedly impressed if they’ve managed to keep this clearly very involved relationship a secret from him all this time.

“Who took him?”

The grave laugh that comes from Mathis is full of pain. “Who do you think?” he asks once he’s done laughing. “If I didn’t help them, they were going to kill my son. I couldn’t allow that to happen, so I’ve done as they’ve asked.”

What happened to Camden suddenly isn’t such a mystery anymore. We theorized there could be a double agent working within the organization, but I don’t think any of us saw it being one of Emeric’s higher-ranking guys. “You killed Camden, didn’t you?”

Guilt blazes across his sullen face like a strike of lightning. “I liked that kid. He was smart and had a lot of potential, but Cam didn’t stand a chance against me. He never saw it coming.”

“That’s because he trusted you!” I yell.

“I didn’t have a choice!” Mathis matches my hostile octave. “They have my fucking kid, and I will do anything to get him back safely. Even if it means delivering my boss’s wife on a silver platter.”

“What—” Whatever else I was going to say shrivels up on my tongue when two menacing figures exit the front door of the cabin as if they own the fucking place. “W-what did you do?”

“Whatever was asked of me,” Mathis answers solemnly but his reply sounds distant and vague.

Standing on the porch looking a little tired and rough around the edges are Bogdan and my brother. They’re both still wearing the same clothes from the fundraiser days ago. In tandem, matching smiles grow on their mouths when they find me staring through the windshield. Not taking his focus off me, Bogdan extends the hand not currently holding a curved knife through the front door. He pulls out a terrified-looking little boy with dark blond hair and a tear-stained red face.

An additional man I don’t recognize follows the boy out onto the wooden porch. My guess is he’s one of Koslov’s men and he’s the one who delivered the poor child to Bogdan and Tiernan.

In the front seat, Anneli’s gasp is violent enough to rattle bones. “Soren…”

“You let them out of the basement?” I question.

Mathis’s hard eyes land on mine. “Whatever they asked of me,” he repeats. “Please get out of the car, Mrs. Banes.”

I stay where I’m sitting, spine painfully straight as the inky thickness of realization settles in my core. “What’s happening back in the city, is it just a distraction to get me here?”

“I don’t know their plans.” Mathis’s stiff shoulders rise once. “I just did what I was told, but if I had to guess, they knew the only way they were getting their hands on you was if the boss was called away, and, honestly, they just really want to kill Banes. I think this was more of a ‘two birds, one stone’ situation.”

“Were you ever loyal to him? To us?” I can’t help but ask.

Another flash of guilt darts across his features. “I was, but my loyalty to my son will always come first.”

“You have to understand.” Anneli’s voice is a hoarse scratch.

I look between the two scared parental figures and incline my head. “I do, but I’ll warn you. Wherever you’re planning on going and hiding after this, you better get there fast, because the second Emeric finds out what you’ve done he’s going to hunt you like you’re nothing more than bleeding, wounded prey.”

They at least have the intelligence to look terrified at the thought of being tracked down by Emeric. Good.

Anneli might as well have pulled the trigger with the way Mathis’s next sentence slices through my chest.

“Only if he’s alive.” He doesn’t wait for a response. Turning in his seat, he exits the SUV and seconds later, the chilly outside air whips around me as he opens my door for me. “Get out, let’s get this over with.” Mathis stiffens when Cerberus follows me out and lands near his feet. “You better keep that dog in check. If you sic him on any of us before I get my kid back, I’ll put a bullet between his eyes.”

I lift my chin and narrow my eyes at this. “I lied before. If that happens, Emeric won’t be the only one hunting you down. I’ll be right there with him.”

The muscle in his jaw jumps when he grabs my arm, and he drags me around the car to greet the demon twins. I drop his leash, but Cerberus refuses to give me any kind of space. With each step I make, he keeps his muscular body pressed tightly to my leg.

With a predator’s gleam, Bogdan’s grin grows and his eyes twinkle when I come into view. “What did I tell you, Rionach? I was always going to get you back.” The Russian psychopath waves his hand toward Emeric’s man at my side. “Did he tell you how he’s been helping us for days? Killed his own man and everything.”

“Stop talking,” Mathis snaps. “We had a deal. I brought you the girl. Give us back our boy.”

Standing between Bogdan’s and Tiernan’s legs, Soren whimpers, his big light brown eyes full of tears. “Daddy…”

“It’s okay, sweetheart,” Anneli soothes from her place beside the passenger door of the black SUV. “We’re here. We’ll be leaving shortly.”

My brother hasn’t pulled his attention away from me since I walked up. His stare, which seemed dazed and unfocused, is locked onto my face. His thin lips move as if he’s mumbling words, but from where I stand, I can’t make out a single word he says. In his left hand he holds a gun. In a rhythmic pattern, he taps it against his thigh. The unhinged and crazed energy I’d felt on him last time seems to have worsened over the past couple of days. I’m not sure how long they were stuck in that cellar before Mathis helped orchestrate their escape, but I can imagine any amount of time spent in those conditions is going to have a lasting effect.

“Where are the guards that were here watching the property?” I question, turning to Bogdan. The energy coming off him reeks of bloodlust. The frenzied expression in his eyes dares me to look away. Like all the women before me, he craves to see me cower and I have no intention of giving him what he wants, so I meet his gaze with a blandness I know will drive him mad.

As if he’s proud to show me what he’s done, Bogdan waves the knife in his hand with a flourish toward the tree line on the left side of the house. “We took a page out of Banes’s book.” My stomach bubbles with a mixture of horror and anger when I find three men, stripped completely naked, hanging from the lower branches of the trees. The front of their bare bodies is painted red from where their throats were cut. “With Mathis’s clear direction and assistance with the security feeds, a team of my father’s men were able to arrive early this morning and apprehend Banes’s guards before freeing us. After I’d recuperated some of my strength, I got to work on the guards. What do you think? Will Banes approve of my rendition?”

That’s how they’d managed to do this. While Emeric and his men in the city were busy dealing with whatever happened in Queens early this morning, Mathis was secretly instructing Koslov’s men to this property. Nova was right, it was all a distraction.

“Stop talking!” Mathis repeats with a furious yell. “Let my kid go. Now.”

Bogdan shoots Mathis a taunting grin before he slowly lowers himself in a squat in front of Soren. “What do you say, kiddo? Are you ready to go back to your daddy?”

“Yes please,” Soren’s broken, snot-filled cry makes my heart hurt. He never should have gotten caught up in this. It isn’t fair to him.

Turning the blade in his palm so he won’t slice the poor child’s face, Koslov mockingly wipes away one of Soren’s fat tears. “Do you love your daddy?”

“Yes,” the boy sobs, his head bouncing in a jerky nod.

Koslov cuts us all a brief look before he tells Soren, “Tell your daddy how much you love him.”

Soren’s confused and terrified, but he does as he’s told. Big, red-rimmed eyes turn to Mathis as he croaks, “I love you, Daddy.”

The last syllable hasn’t fully formed on Soren’s tongue when the piercing gunshot rings out through the space and surrounding trees. The deafening sound is followed closely by a shrill, heartbreaking female scream and the hollow thud of a body hitting the gravel ground next to me. I’m so stunned, I’m only vaguely aware of the spray of warm blood across the left side of my face.

Anneli and Soren’s combined cries turn into dull, distant noises when I look down at Mathis’s unmoving body. Blood from the gunshot in his forehead pools around his dark hair in the fine gray gravel.

My world, which was momentarily moving in slow motion as if we were underwater, snaps back into crystal-clear focus and normal speed at the same time I turn my head to look at Bogdan. While he squatted in front of the boy, he pulled a gun out of his waistband without any of us noticing.

That very gun is now pointed at Emeric’s housekeeper.

“Ann—” The rest of her name is ripped away and silenced when a second gunshot splits through the air. The stunningly beautiful woman falls to the ground in front of the SUV with a matching hole in her forehead.

With a shit-eating grin plastered across his fucked-up face, Bogdan takes a step off the porch. The confidence in which he moves makes me see red. He’s pleased with himself and the lives he’s just stolen.

He takes one more step in my direction and then all hell breaks loose.

For a single second, Bogdan’s attention is pulled away from me when the sound of another gun goes off behind him. Koslov’s goon crumples to the ground in screaming agony from the wound that’s ripped a hole through his gut. Tiernan stands over the Russian with the gun still pointed at him.

Why the hell did Tiernan just shoot that man? Aren’t they on the same team?

The single second of distraction is all Cerberus needs.

Without being told, the dog launches himself at Bogdan with so much power, he takes the impressively built psychopath to the ground. The gun that he had used on Mathis and Anneli skids across the gravel driveway as Cerberus’s teeth sink into the unblemished side of Koslov’s face. His screams of pain join the symphony of Cerberus’s vicious snarls.

My heart leaps into my throat when a sharp, pained whine interrupts the brutal sounds. In his left hand, Bogdan’s curved blade is now red. The attack dog is forced to let up just enough that Bogdan begins to wiggle free. As he does this, he lifts the blade up again, but Cerberus, who’s unwilling to back down, clamps his powerful jaw down on Bogdan’s wrist with such force, I can hear bones snap from where I stand yards away. The dog violently shakes his head, tearing skin and muscle until the knife also clatters to the ground.

Koslov’s screams of pain and terror increase when my dog returns his attention to the Russian’s already bloody and mangled face. And then his throat. The screams quickly shift into choked, gargled noises, and Bogdan’s attempts to push the animal away turn weaker.

A child’s terrified cries pulls my gaze away from the carnage in front of me. Soren, who’s remained curled up on the porch with Tiernan and the unknown dying Koslov employee, is trying to make himself as small as possible by curling his body into a tight ball. His blond head is tucked between his knees and his little hands try to block out the horrific sounds by covering his ears.

Tiernan pays the kid no mind, his focus solely on the Russian being mauled in front of him, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a danger to the child. He’s now just as unpredictable as Koslov is.

I don’t think about it. I just start running for the little boy. His screams break my heart when my arms wrap around his small body and lift him off the now bloodstained decking.

“It’s okay, I’ve got you.” He’s so inconsolable at this point, I don’t think he’s hearing a word I’m saying, but that doesn’t stop me from repeating myself. “You’re okay, Soren. I promise.”

I promise… This might end up being a big fat lie because I have no idea if more of Koslov’s men will be showing up here soon, or what the plan was for after they got me here. From the fleeting look of confusion I saw on Bogdan’s face when Tiernan’s gun went off, I don’t think killing the Koslov soldier was part of their previously agreed upon arrangement. And most importantly, I have no idea if my husband is going to come and save me because I don’t know if he’s even alive right now. I’ve been trying and failing to keep the images of him being crushed by concrete rubble at bay since Mathis first told me The Daria exploded. If I allow myself to succumb to those excruciating thoughts, I won’t be able to focus on what I need to do now.

I can’t truthfully promise Soren everything will be okay, but I will go down fighting making sure nothing else happens to this kid. That’s a promise I can make to myself.

With Soren tucked against my chest the best I can, I turn away from where Tiernan still hovers near the slowly dying Russian man and start to go back down the three simple wooden steps of the porch. The toe of my right boot just barely touches the planks of the last step when something hard cracks against the back of my skull.

The blow instantly steals my balance, and I’m falling forward before I have a chance to piece together what’s just happened.

I try my best to angle myself so I don’t land directly atop the weeping boy in my arms.

The impact of the unforgiving hard ground against my left shoulder and side joins the litany of pain radiating from the back of my head. My vision goes in and out of focus as I fight to reorient myself with my surroundings and current predicament.

Out of the corner of my eye, Tiernan is prowling down the steps. His mouth is moving again as if he’s having a full-blown conversation, but he still doesn’t make a sound.

Soren,” I gasp, my head is still spinning, and nausea has started to twist in my stomach. With how hard Tiernan hit me, I wouldn’t be surprised if I reached back and found my scalp bleeding. With a pained groan, I roll onto my stomach so I can watch the kid crawl away on his hands and knees. Big, tear-filled brown eyes look over his shoulder at me and his bottom lip trembles with hysterical sobs. “Run. You have to run and hide, okay?” He gives me zero sign he’s understanding what I’m saying. “Soren, run! Right now!” My raised and slightly panicked voice is what finally has him stumbling to his feet.

He nearly trips over his feet again when his small legs carry him past his father’s body. No child should be forced to see their parents like this. It’s not fair. I think he’s still wailing, but the ringing now in my ears blocks any other sound. My vision tilts as I watch him run in the direction of the thick tree line on the opposite side of the driveway from where Emeric’s dead men hang.

“Cerberus!” I holler, my own voice sounding miles away to my ears. “Cerberus, halt!” The Doberman reluctantly lifts his head from where he’s had his jaw clamped down on Bogdan’s throat and stares expectantly at me. “Pass auf!” Guard. The muscles in my arm shake as I lift my hand to point at where the little boy is running. “Pass auf!” He doesn’t want to leave me. I can see it in the way his pointed ears waver and he takes a half step toward where I lie. “No! Not me. Him. Pass auf, Cerberus!”

With a low whine, he finally does what I asked.

The relief I feel knowing my dog will watch over the innocent boy is fleeting.

Tiernan’s stalking frame casts a shadow when he comes to a stop at my feet. He stares down at me with an unblinking gaze for a long moment before he lifts his head and arm. Gun raised, he settles his aim on Soren’s back.

“No!” I scream, my boot slamming into his shin at the same time. My brother stumbles forward and lands on both knees. If it weren’t for the gun now being pointed in my direction, I might have enjoyed his scream of pain that comes out of him when he’s forced to catch his balance with his still healing stump.

“Get up,” Tiernan sneers at me, his pale and exhausted face turning a familiar shade of red. Ungracefully, he pulls himself back to his feet. When I don’t follow suit, he waves the gun impatiently a foot away from my face. “I said, get the fuck up!”

Trembling, I rise from the ground, my dizzy head and uneasy stomach intensifying as I stand before him. “Tiernan…”

“It isn’t how this was supposed to happen!” he roars, lunging at me at a speed my concussed brain has trouble following. His right arm loops around my neck at the same time there’s a bite of hard metal against my temple. “Everything was ruined!”

Unceremoniously, he drags me back up the porch steps and into the A-frame cabin. Underneath my stumbling feet, the debris of the once pristine decor and furniture crunch. From the looks of it, while they were waiting for me to arrive, they spent their time destroying the inside of Emeric’s once immaculately decorated home. The couch has deep slashes through the cushions and back of it and the stuffing is scattered across the once white rug. What looks to be red wine is spilled all over the carpet now. The wall of windows that overlook the trees at the back of the house are shattered and the shards of glass are everywhere.

“He kept us tied up down here for two days,” my brother says when we reach the open door of the basement. “Did you know that? Did you know how he left us to rot?”

“I—”

I miss the first step when he forces us down the dimly lit stairwell. My hand flails for something to grasp so I don’t go tumbling and crack my head on the concrete floors below. It’s Tiernan’s arm tightening around my throat and bringing me tighter to his sweaty chest that keeps me upright. It’s slow, clumsy work getting us down all the steps, and once we reach the bottom, he lets me go with an unforgiving shove.

I stumble forward but catch myself on one of the many stacks of wooden crates full of liquor. The open bottle of Irish whiskey that had been left on top teeters off and crashes to the hard floors. Pieces of glass decorate the floor at my feet and whiskey splashes up and splatters the exposed skin of my shins.

Breathing heavily, I turn and look at my big brother—a man I hardly recognize anymore. “Yes, I knew he had you guys down here,” I admit. “Emeric showed me the live footage.”

Don’t!” Tiernan, who’s positioned himself directly in front of the wood and iron staircase, takes a single angry step forward. “I don’t want to hear his fucking name come out of your mouth one more time. You don’t belong to him. You’re not his. Don’t speak his name again!” He scratches the side of his head with the barrel of his gun, his brown eyes darting chaotically all over my body.

“He’s my husband⁠—”

A bullet takes a chunk out of the stone floor two feet in front of me. I drop to my haunches and cover my head with my arms as my body braces for him to shoot again.

“No, he’s not!” Tiernan’s roar doesn’t even sound like him. It’s full of turmoil and wild animal-like anger. Something in his mind is well and truly cracked. “He stole you!”

I peek at him from behind my arm. He’s pacing now, the gun still rhythmically scratching his sweaty temple.

“He stole me from Koslov, I know.” Warily, I stand to my full height again as I watch his every movement. With every pass he makes in front of the staircase, he moves farther and farther away. If I time it right, this could give me an opening to dart up the stairs while his back is turned.

He aggressively whips around. “Not from them! From me! You were never going to marry Bogdan. I was going to make sure of it. I told you once that Dad was making a mistake, and I was going to fix it.” The confusion I feel must be written across my face and is as obvious as a glowing neon sign that says What the actual fuck? because he explains, “Don’t you get it, Rionach? We were never meant to marry anyone else. We were created for each other. By preserving our bloodline and making it strong again, we’re going to save our family. It’s destiny.”

Oh… oh fuck no.

There’s about twenty pounds of crazy in a five-pound bag staring at me like I’m the solution to all his very obvious problems.

This is so much worse than I thought it was. Between violently losing a hand and then being strung up naked in a cold cellar like a slab of meat, his weakening grasp on reality made sense. That’s what I was blaming his deteriorating mental state on, but what he’s saying now isn’t a new development or a result of the trauma he’s experienced lately.

He’s been having these corrupt thoughts for much longer. I mean, hell, he basically told me his whole plan over a month ago when he came to my room and warned me about marrying outside of our bloodline. His change in attitude toward me when I went through puberty is also now glaringly obvious too. All the random excuses to touch me and the way he watched me when I entered a room. This whole time he wanted…

I swallow the bile creeping up the back of my throat. “I’m your sister.”

“I know.” He nods over his shoulder at me as he continues his pacing. “It’s perfect. Our children will be pure, and they’ll grow strong, just like our empire will once again when we rectify all the wrongs that have been made over the decades. Because of our union, our bloodline will return to its rightful glory.”

“Our c-children?” My immediate instinct is to argue with him and his immoral plans, but there’s no point. When someone is this far gone and this deep in their delusion, they’re not going to see reason. My brother has been in this for so long, there’s no pulling him out.

“Once Dad’s done dealing with him, and he gets here, we’ll deal with Igor together. He’ll understand why I went against the alliance. He has to understand, and he’ll help make this right,” Tiernan mumbles the last sentence like he’s saying it for himself. “After we take care of that, we’ll take you to the doctor. You’ve been whoring yourself out to him for over a month. We have to make sure you’re not… infested with his offspring. Once that’s taken care of, we’ll be married like we were always destined to be.”

Dad and Igor are possibly headed here, and they have no idea that Tiernan’s gone off the deep end. If it wasn’t already dire that I get out of this basement and far away from this cabin before, it sure as hell is now. All hell is going to break loose when they learn what’s happened, and I don’t want to be in the same zip code when Igor finds his mauled son. Emeric’s stories have told me what he’s capable of and that scares the shit out of me.

Tiernan passes the bottom of the staircase again with his head down and his lips moving again with more silent conversation.

I don’t hesitate, I just run. This might be my only opening.

My right foot hits the bottom step at the same time Tiernan’s hand wraps around the long strands of my hair and he rips me unforgivingly backward by it. The air is knocked out of my lungs and my body screams in agony when I land on the glass-covered concrete floor.

I’m fighting for my next breath when Tiernan’s bulky body straddles my hips and a menacing smirk I’ve never seen before distorts his face. I thought I knew fear, that I was more familiar with the emotion than I ought to be, but nothing has scared me more than his hand going to the buckle of his beige pants.

“Tiernan, no!” I beg, my body fighting like hell beneath his unforgiving weight. I find it hard to be relieved the gun is nowhere to be seen when I’m trapped under him because being shot is almost preferable to what he’s currently trying to do. “I’m your sister!”

“Shh…” The sound is anything but soothing to my ears. “It’s okay. You’ll be my wife soon enough.” Vomit threatens to come up when he moves on from the zipper of his pants to his shirt. Grabbing the back of the short-sleeved collared shirt, he rips it over his head and reveals the pasty white skin of his torso. “A husband is allowed to lie with his wife, Rionach. In fact, I believe it’s encouraged.”

My fingers claw and fight off his hand when he reaches for the fabric of my dress. He doesn’t flinch or even seem to notice that I’ve drawn blood. He simply keeps true to his mission and pulls at the fabric until my navy-blue lace panties are exposed to him.

The growl of approval that rumbles in his chest at the sight of them has ice-like fingers of dread crawling across my skin. My body tries in vain to twist away but he manages to drag one of his stubby thick fingers across the fabric over the seam of my most intimate place.

The scream that rips from my throat is deafening to my own ears.

“I have to get you nice and wet,” he says, sounding completely at ease with what he’s doing. Like what he’s doing is perfectly acceptable. “I don’t want it to hurt when I fuck you, Rionach, but if you don’t stay still and let me touch you, I won’t be able to get you ready to take me.”

My legs try to kick and thrash beneath him, but he’s so goddamn heavy and I’ve never felt weaker—more vulnerable—in my entire life. Tears are pouring out of my eyes in rivulets and my vision is nearly completely blurry because of them. I’m oddly grateful for the tears because they make Tiernan’s foreboding figure and the disturbingly peaceful expression on his face nothing more than watery smears.

This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening.

My left hand shoves and tries to block his prodding, aggressive fingers while my right hand searches for something—anything—nearby that could help me get him off me. Maybe when he dropped the gun to grab my hair, it landed somewhere close enough I could grab it?

Pain slices across my fingertips when they run through the glass shards above my head.

Glass.

The broken bottle.

With newfound determination, my hand swipes through the pieces of glass. I’m numb to the pain of cuts slicing into my palm and fingers as I do. I just wish I was numb to the sensation of Tiernan’s finger forcing itself inside of me.

I throw everything I have into my thrashing and fighting. This time I’m incapable of hearing it, but I know without any doubt that I’m screaming because my throat burns. My eyes squeeze tight. It’s like my mind is unconsciously trying to protect me from physically seeing what is about to happen.

My body fights me when I force them open once again.

I need to see this part.

My vision, momentarily void of tears, is in crystal-clear clarity when I meet the sinister gaze of my brother as the severed top of the Irish whiskey bottle in my bloody fingers sinks into his jugular.

Tiernan’s bulky body lurches on top of mine and a pained and startled gasp escapes his thin lips. The way he stares down at me, it’s like he doesn’t understand why I’ve done what I just did. It’s a look of utter betrayal.

“Rio—” My name is cut off by a choking cough. Blood spray across his mouth and onto my face. “Why…”

Why? Did he really just ask that?

I’d laugh but my body has gone deathly still and silent. Numb. This might be shock, but I can’t be sure.

“Because I’m your sister.” My fingers wrap around the neck of the broken bottle and rip it free of his flesh. Vibrant blood sprays from his severed artery and paints my face and chest red. “And you’re a monster! A fucking monster!”

Then I stab him again.

And again.

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