No one heard. Only the desolate fields, the withered scarecrows, and Vinemont.
I couldn’t sleep. The last full night of rest I’d gotten was when Vinemont had brought me home after my meltdown on the roadside. That restful night had more to do with a dose of narcotics from the family doctor than anything else. I hadn’t cared about being drugged. I was emptied out. Every last bit of me had been screamed into the cold air as my tormentor held me.
But the trial was here. Lucius had returned from Cuba the previous night. I knew he would. There was no escape for me. I would be abused, likely many times over, and it would start today. The sun had risen an hour ago, the rays illuminating the quilts, each one telling a story I didn’t care to hear.
Renee was still missing. Her absence added to the long list of disappointments already lodged in my heart. I’d stopped by her room several times, but she was never there. Her bed was always neatly made. I’d peered at the stairs to the third floor, and even taken a few steps once before Laura hurried down the hall and shook her head, warning in her eyes. After that, I’d stopped asking about Renee.
A knock at my door made me turn my head. “Yes?” My voice was scratchy.
“It’s time.” Lucius didn’t barge in and order me around. He stayed out of sight.
“Downstairs in an hour. Dress warm, and wear comfortable shoes.”
Before I could get in a snide reply, his footsteps were already retreating down the hallway. Dress warm.
I rose and showered, taking my time to feel every bit of the hot water. I ignored the paleness of my face in the mirror, the shake in my hands as I brushed my hair. Dressing as instructed, I donned a dark green sweater, black puffer jacket, jeans, and boots. I couldn’t shake the feeling I was dressing myself for my own funeral. I didn’t bother with makeup. I knelt next to my nightstand and took out the knife. The unyielding metal gave me an odd sense of comfort and served an even more basic purpose—defense. I turned the blade over and over in my hands before I wrapped the tape around it and shoved it down into my boot.
I met Lucius and Vinemont downstairs in the breakfast room. Lucius had dressed warmly in a black sweater and jeans, and Vinemont wore his usual work attire. Neither man looked at me.
I took my seat and picked at my food. If I ate a bite, I was sure it would come right back up. Lucius didn’t seem particularly hungry either, and Vinemont only drank coffee.
I stopped even attempting to look interested, laying my fork down and sitting back in my chair. “I hate the waiting. Let’s go.”
Lucius nodded in agreement and stood. Vinemont ignored him, staring straight ahead as if he watched a ghost known only to him. I rose and followed Lucius out of the dining room and down the hall. In the foyer, he turned, his face more solemn than I’d ever seen it. There wasn’t so much as a hint of amusement or his acerbic wit. Only focus.
His seriousness scared me more than anything. I couldn’t control the shudder that went through me.
He grabbed my hands and brought them to his chest. “You can do this. We can do this, okay? Remember what I said to you in Cuba? All of it still stands. You just have to get through this.”
I lifted my eyes to his. “And then I have to get through the next, and the next? What are the last two, Lucius? Are you going to flay my skin from my body? Scar me beyond recognition? What?”
“One thing at a time. And, no. None of those things. This one is…”
“The worst?” I finished for him.
“I think so. But I don’t know what Cal is planning for the other two.” He gripped my neck and pulled me toward him before dropping a kiss on the top of my head. “Trust me. We’ll get through it. We’ll get through all of them.”
I wanted to be heartened, to take his words as some sort of comfort. But they were hollow. Getting through this trial was my cross to bear, not his. I would be crucified right along with the other two Acquisitions while Lucius threw dice at my feet.
I closed my eyes and remembered my father. The way he was before his arrest, before his trial, before any infernal contracts. The one that had held me as I cried for my mother on nights too numerous to count. The one who’d saved me from my own attempt at self annihilation. The one who, even as I felt the sting of his deceit, still lived in my heart. I needed my loving father there, giving me courage to do what I had to do, even if he was nothing more than a specter haunting my memories.