I blink. Once. Twice. And stare up at an ornate ceiling of delicate molding dancing around a chandelier. The thoughts in my head are thick and foggy, a feeling I’m familiar with, but I’m unsure why.
Sitting up, I’m surprised to find myself dressed in a red silk gown which spreads over the bed like a bloom of blood. I feel dazed. Woozy. My head thuds impossibly loud and I hold myself as still as possible and let my eyes wander. Black wallpaper covered in gold filigree patterns. A gold chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Black curtains floating in the breeze from an open window.
There’s a sound at the door, a key turning in the lock, then it creaks open and he steps in. The moment I see him, memories come flooding back.
Being chased down the road.
The hard thud of feet on the pavement behind me.
The pulsing fear.
And then Sebastian. Holding me, comforting me, feeling so tired in his arms that I just wanted to sleep. But there are still parts missing. They’re there in my mind, but it’s like they keep slipping out of reach.
“Sebastian?” I say groggily, my voice coming out deep and foreign.
“You’re awake, I see.”
The panic is still there, prickling at the back of my mind. It dances on my chest, gently tapping a steady rhythm on my heart.
“What’s going on?” I look around the room again, my eyes taking in the open crack of the wardrobe door, revealing a glimpse of red. “Why am I here? Where’s Roxy?”
Sebastian walks over to the bed and sits on the edge, causing the mattress to dip. There’s something different about him. A quiet confidence I haven’t seen before. A smirk instead of a bored insolent expression. His hand snakes out to rest on my ankle, the only part of me exposed under the folds of material. It feels wrong. Strange. Hot and heavy.
My body starts to tremble.
“What’s happening?” I ask again, my voice sounding a little more like my own, but cracking with fear.
He strokes my ankle gently, running his hand up and down my leg. Jostling across the mattress, he moves closer, an excited gleam in his eye. Leaning forward, he inhales deeply.
“You’re finally mine, my sweet songbird.”
My heart sinks and panic drowns me. I start to shake my head, refusing to believe the truth.
“No.” I keep shaking. “No. It can’t be. You can’t be.”
He shuffles even closer, taking my hand in his and bringing it to his lips.
“Yes. We can finally be together. No more Ryker. No more Roxy. No more of my father making the rules. Just you and me like it has always meant to be.”
My brain refuses to compute the information. I jerk my hand away, scrambling back to press against the headboard and draw my knees to my chest, hiding in the ruffles of red. “But Roxy,” I say. “You love her.”
He laughs, something I’ve never heard before. At another place, at another time, I might think him handsome. He’s got jet-black hair, thick eyebrows and a wide mouth. His eyes are blue. But they are not blue like Ryker’s are blue. They are intense and hard. Piercing.
“She’s nothing. Well, no, not nothing.” He strokes my cheek with the back of his finger, leaving my skin seared. “She introduced me to you, my sweet songbird, and for that, I will forever be grateful.” His hand drops back to his lap. “But I never loved her. She was nothing more than a way to pass the time until you became mine.”
“What do you want?” I stutter, pulling my knees tighter to my chest and trying to stop the shaking.
“You,” he says. “I want you.” He moves so he is sitting before me on his knees, his dark hair perfectly groomed, his teeth perfectly straight and white, his eyes gleaming. “I want your body. I want your love. I want your voice and your passion and your talent.” He moves even closer, pressing his hands to my knees and shoving his face so close to mine, his breath hits my face. “I want your soul,” he hisses. “I have waited so long for you. It felt like torture. I had to wait as Ryk—”
“Is he here?”
He reels back as though I have slapped him, the intensity in his eyes replaced with venom. “Forget about him. He is not important. He was merely someone to condition you because my father thought I wouldn’t be able to control myself. He thought—Never mind what he thought. It doesn’t matter now. You are here, and you are mine.”
His eyes drop to my mouth and I unconsciously bite my bottom lip. He groans at the motion and closes his eyes just for a moment. Taking advantage of his distraction, I leap from the bed and race toward the door. Grabbing the handle, I pull, but the door is locked. I keep trying, rattling the door, but it is pointless. Tears spring to my eyes but I push them back. This is no time to cry. I need to get away. I cannot go through this again.
Sebastian lifts himself from the bed, stalking slowly toward me. “There is no point in trying to run. This is your cage, my sweet songbird.” He holds his hands out and twirls around as though I should admire the décor. “I designed it especially for you. Do you like it?”
Pressing myself against the door, my fingers still gripped around the handle as though there is hope that it might suddenly work, I hold my other hand out.
“Stay away from me.”
Sebastian laughs. “Or what?” His wicked smile flashes wider. “What are you going to do? Stab me like you stabbed Ryker?”
I swallow. “Is—Is he okay?”
“Enough about Ryker!” He races toward me, wrapping his hand around my neck, and pushes me against the door until my feet rise off the floor and I’m balancing on my tiptoes.
“Do not mention him again! You are mine. Everything about your life before me no longer exists. You exist for me only, do you understand?”
His fingers cut into my throat, restricting my air. I claw at them, desperate for relief, but his grip is impossibly strong. I want to kick him, knee him, spit at him, claw his eyes out, but he is too close pressed against me. His fingers are wrapped so tightly all I can think about is my need for air.
“You are no longer Mia Cooper.” He spits my name as though it is poison. “You are mine.”
He lets me go and I slump to the floor, coughing and spluttering as I try to suck in air. Frantically I scan the room, looking for escape. The curtains flutter in the breeze and a faint hope rises that I might be able to jump out the window.
The anger that rippled through Sebastian a moment ago is gone, and in its place, there’s someone calmer, more in control. He walks over to a plush red chair in the corner and sinks into it, draping himself over it as though it is a throne. Noting the direction of my gaze, one side of his mouth curls upward. Jerking the rope that dangles beside him, he rips the curtains open.
“Take a look,” he says.
I stay on the ground, eyes darting between him and the open window. From where I’m lying on the floor, the only thing I can see out the window is blue sky, reminding me of my cell, though the window is bigger and the walls surrounding it are covered in a patterned black wallpaper, rather than cold concrete.
“Go on,” he urges. “Have a look at your world.”
Cautiously getting to my feet, I walk over to the window, inhaling the whiff of fresh air and look out. We are three stories high. Below me, there is nothing but fields of grass.
Sebastian gets off the chair and stands behind me, his lips brushing over my hair as he speaks. “Welcome to the Atterton Manor, my songbird. Welcome to your new home.” He pushes my hair behind my ear and lowers his voice. “Do you like it?”
I turn and look into his cold blue eyes. “You’re not going to get away with this.”
“I’m not?” He takes a step forward and I take a step back. “I believe you’ll find I already have.” Sebastian smiles. It’s strange to see it on him. When around Roxy, he was so quiet, so unobtrusive, but here in this room, he’s transformed into someone different. He’s lifted his mask and I wonder how I didn’t see that he wore one before.
He raises his hand to stroke my cheek, but I jerk back, my feet getting caught in the folds of material.
Sebastian shakes his head. “Tut, tut, tut. I thought Ryker had trained you better than this.”
I try to move away further, but my backside presses against the windowsill, the cool breeze drifting over the exposed skin of my back. Sebastian keeps stepping forward, pushing himself against me until I’m almost leaning out the window. “Careful,” he whispers in my ear. “You wouldn’t want to fall.”
Without warning, he shoves my chest and I reel back, having to grab onto the sides of the window to keep from falling.
Taking a step back, he folds his arms across his chest. “See? You do want to stay.”
With my fingers pressed to the wall, I slide sideways, away from him, away from the window. My heart pounds in my chest and my mouth is dry. The nauseating feeling of panic bubbles beneath the surface of my skin.
“You have to let me go, Sebastian. The police will be looking for you. They will find you.”
Sebastian yanks the curtains shut and returns to his throne-like chair. “I doubt that.” He holds his hand out as though inspecting his fingernails. “They didn’t before. And besides, my father knows all the right people in all the right places. He’s been doing this for years.”
Sebastian blinks, no hint of remorse or shame in his posture. “Yes, though I would argue the fact that you can’t steal something that belongs to you, and you belong to me, Mia. But we’ve never taken someone from this close to home. There’s something daring about it, don’t you think? Thrilling.”
“My parents won’t give up. They will keep looking for me.” I keep sliding sideways with my back to the wall, slowly making my way back to the door.
“And what about Roxy?”
He frowns. A single line presses between his brows and a strand of his perfectly groomed hair falls out of place. “What about her?”
“What are you going to tell her about me?”
“Why would I tell her anything? I told you, she’s inconsequential.”
“There’s no need to repeat what I say, Mia.”
For some reason using my name sounds crueler than when he called me his songbird. It reminds me of who I am, rather than who he wants me to be.
“And you may as well get thoughts of escape out of your mind right now.” He nods toward the door. “There is only one key and I have it.” He tugs on the chain around his neck and a key peeks out from above his shirt. “See?” I follow the key greedily with my eyes. “You’re more than welcome to come and see if you can get it.”
He dangles it, swaying it back and forth. “Come on, my sweet songbird. It’s right here. All you’ve got to do is take it.”
Without giving him any more time to prepare, I launch myself toward him, a tornado of fists and fury. He rises to meet me and laughs when I hit him. I punch and I kick and I flail until he engulfs me with his arms, holding me against him tightly, reminding me that I am no match for him. His heartbeat pounds and vibrates through me.
“Did you like that?” he asks, breathing heavily against my ear. His tongue slides over my neck and groans. “Because I sure did.” He chuckles as I struggle and licks me again. “You taste so good, my sweet songbird. So good. So innocent. So sweet. Did you know I was the one who told Ryker not to hurt you? Did he tell you that? Did you know that I was the one who gave him the rules for your training?”
I keep struggling, straining to release myself from his arms, but the more I struggle the tighter he holds. “You might think that was because I didn’t want to hurt you,” his voice lowers to a sinister whisper, “but you’d be wrong.”
I try to jostle free my elbow and ram it into his side, but he maneuvers his body away while still holding me tight. “Keep struggling. I like it.” He laughs coldly. “But the only reason I told him those things was to stop him hurting you. The rules don’t apply to me. I can do whatever I like because you’re mine. Your pain is mine. Your body is mine. You. Are. Mine.”
He lets go, pushing me away, and I stumble to the ground, reaching out my hands to break my fall.
“Now,” he stalks toward me, “Let’s see if Ryker’s training was as useless as he was.” He’s standing directly over me now, his ice-blue eyes boring into mine. “Don’t say a word.”