“No. None of that. But do you remember the first day you met Stella?”
Teddy shifted from one foot to the other. “Yes.”
“I can make her do a lot more than just stand naked. And I can make you watch all of it. Is that what you want? Would you like that? And another thing, in case that’s not enough to get your attention. Laura. I can make sure you never see her again.”
Teddy slammed his helmet on the ground. “Goddammit, Sin! Why are you like this? What happened to the you that existed before the Acquisition? The one who helped me with homework because Mom was too drugged up or spaced out to notice I was even there? The one who encouraged me to go to med school? The one who taught me how to ride a fucking bike?” He pointed to Black Widow. “Where did you go?”
Vinemont remained completely unmoved. His placid demeanor in the face of such a heartfelt plea sent a chill down my spine. How had I thought for one moment that he was anything other than a monster?
“The same place you’re going. Right back to the house, in front of me, and at a reasonable speed. Now shut the fuck up, get your helmet on, and get on the bike. Stella, get in the goddamn car.” He turned on his heel and stalked through the unkempt grass, back to the car.
“Just go.” Teddy was defeated, crushed under Vinemont’s elegant shoe. Just like me. “There’s no talking to him like this. I’ll see you back at the house.”
“I’m sorry, Teddy.”
“It’s not your fault.” He glared at his brother but then his expression softened. “If I told you he wasn’t like this, not really, would you believe me?”
I didn’t want to give him the bad news—I already knew this was the real Vinemont.
“Ride safe.” I gave him a weak smile before walking to the black sedan. I tossed the helmet into the back and sank into the passenger side before slamming the door shut.
“Did you do this?” I asked as he pulled from the curb.
“Do what?” Vinemont sighed and waited for Teddy to ride out ahead of him.
“Burn down my house.”
He laughed, the sound filling the car’s interior and making me flinch. “Are you still laying your father’s crimes at my feet?”
“What?” I glanced back at the ruined house that held so many memories for me, good and bad. “Are you saying my father did it?”
“Oh, look who finally figured something out. Well done, Stella, really. I’d clap, but as you can see, I’m driving.” His sneer had me looking away, looking at anything but him. “You don’t believe me?”
“I didn’t say that.” After what my father had done to me, I wouldn’t put anything past him.
“Money, Stella. Insurance money, to be exact. He torched it all. He cashed in on that house, just like he cashed in on you.”
He drove around the square and turned onto the highway that led back to my prison. My breathing turned shallow as I thought of everything that had happened to me in the burned-out husk behind me, how the last time I’d left it, I thought I was doing it for all the right reasons. The betrayals layered on betrayals began to suffocate me like dirt on my grave, and I couldn’t get enough air. The metal and glass closed in on me, and I clamped my eyes shut, trying to ward off my rising panic.
“Stella?” Vinemont’s voice came through like we were at opposite ends of a tin can telephone.
I gulped in more air, trying to stay alive, to breathe. I just had to make it to the next moment, to keep going to the next and the next until they all fell over like a long line of dominoes, and at the end was freedom, my freedom. But my thoughts began to dim and I still couldn’t get enough air.
The car stopped and hands were on my shoulders, pulling me out and into the cold winter wind.
“Breathe, Stella. Slowly. Slowly.”
I opened my eyes and stared up into Vinemont’s face. I staggered back, shrinking away from him even as something in me reacted to the worry in his eyes. I shook my head. He was only worried I wouldn’t be able to win for him. He would violate me. They all would. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see. I stumbled and fell back against the passenger door as he advanced.
“No,” I croaked.
“Stella, please.” His voice, so different from just a few moments ago, was soaked in the same pain that burned in my lungs, in my mind.
He took another step. I finally got my breath and used it to scream. I screamed and screamed, the sound ripped from my throat and piercing the air. Each peel of despair carried every horror, every unwanted touch, every painful lash, and every desolate thought. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t be free, but I could scream. I screamed until I crumpled. He caught me in his arms and crushed me to his chest as my lungs gave out, the last shriek dying on the wind as he held me close.