I lost him.
Not only that, but I made it out of the maze, deeming me safe.
No harm will come to you.
Lies, but I’ll take it for now.
I didn’t stop there, though. I ran so deep into the woods that I’m thoroughly lost now, not even a whisper of human life. It reminds me so much of Parsons Manor, it makes my chest ache. Doesn’t help that I’m breathing so heavily that I choke on the oxygen with every inhale. I’m on the verge of both vomiting and passing out, even though my body can’t decide which to do first.
Feeling confident enough that they don’t know where I am, I rip the branch off my waist, lean heavily against a tree and slide down, my legs incapable of holding me up any longer.
My eyes begin to roll, but I fight against the urge because despite being considered safe, that doesn’t really exist in this world. Xavier could stumble upon me and take advantage of us being alone. My screams wouldn’t be heard, and even if they were, no one would give a shit.
Wiping sweat from my eyes, I look over my surroundings. At first, I see nothing but trees. But then, off in the distance, I glimpse metal glinting in the moonlight.
A crease forms between my brows and my curiosity piques. I allow myself another minute to catch my breath before I force myself back to my feet and jog toward the foreign object while periodically checking over my shoulder to make sure that no one is behind me.
As I approach, the object becomes identifiable, and I lose my breath all over again when I realize what it is.
It’s an abandoned train. A massive row of trailers stretches across the wooded area in either direction, the metal rusted and corroded from nature. My heart pounds and excitement blooms.
That’s the only word that comes to mind when I look at this abandoned train. I don’t know how yet, but I do know that it could provide me shelter when I eventually leave this place.
Checking over my shoulder once more and seeing nobody there, I approach the train and run my hands over the cold metal. So badly, I want to seek asylum here instead of returning to that house. I’ve no idea whether they know of the train’s location, but it won’t be hard to find with the tracking device in the back of my neck.
If this train is going to offer me anything, then I need to utilize it when they aren’t able to track me.
A loud horn breaks through the silence, causing critters to scatter and a yelp to escape, my heart jumping up my throat. Breathing heavily, I peer over my shoulder, hearing voices calling out, announcing the end of the Culling.
They’ll be looking for me, and I’m tempted to dig out the tracking device with a sharp branch and make a run for it anyway, but fear has me in a chokehold. There are too many factors against me.
Be smart, little mouse.
I take off back in the direction I came from, now paranoid that they’ll find me near the train and discover it if they weren’t already aware of it. I don’t want to chance it if they weren’t.
After several minutes of jogging, I catch a glimpse of black hair and a feminine stature before it disappears behind a tree.
“Hey!” I call out, hoping whoever it is, they’ll know the way back.
The person emerges from the other end of the tree, and I realize that it’s Jillian.
She looks over to me, eyes wide and breathing heavily. She doesn’t look much worse than I do, which is honestly relieving.
“You made it,” she says softly. We meet each other in the middle and her eyes look me up and down, likely looking for injuries.
“I did,” I respond, still breathless. Up until Zade’s training, I’ve never exerted this much energy in my entire life.
“Do you know how to get back?” I ask.
She glances around. “I think so. If not, they’ll come get us.” I nod, and we begin to walk.
“Have you been through the Culling before?” I ask.
She seems to have so much knowledge for it being her first time. “No, you only go through it once,” she answers.
“Except if you’re Sydney,” I mutter, though I’m relieved to hear that I’ll never have to do this again.
Jillian snorts. “That’s true. She knows the maze like the back of her hand now.”
“Is she the one who taught you how to get through it?”
She shakes her head. “When I first arrived, I was even more combative than you. Francesca considered me too much of a risk to put in the Culling until she could set me straight, so I had watched other girls go through it first. I learned a lot from them.” She pauses. “And I also witnessed everything that happened after. Look, you need to prepare for—”
A deep booming laugh interrupts whatever she was going to say. Jillian and I both flinch and turn toward the sound. Xavier emerges from behind a tree, and my poor overused heart speeds up once more.
“Well, diamond, I guess you proved me wrong this time,” he chuckles, his eyes sweeping my body up and down in a predatory way.
As much as it tickles their manhood to catch us during the Culling, it also means that we’re deemed unworthy to be auctioned off. And that means they’re allowed to dole out our punishment for tonight only. So, while escaping Xavier might’ve ruffled his feathers, it’s still an accomplishment.
Because now he gets to keep me. Swallowing nervously, I say, “I guess I did.”
He purses his lips and nods, and then tips his chin in the direction that we need to go.
“I’d be happy to escort you fine ladies, if you don’t mind,” he offers, his voice deepening.
Jillian and I glance at each other, but ultimately, we nod our heads.
Because what else are we supposed to fucking say?
No, go away, you have cooties.
If only it were that easy.
He directs us outside of the maze so we can avoid the tripwires. It takes thirty-five long grueling minutes to make it back to the house. Thirty-five minutes of bouts of uncomfortable silence, stilted conversation, and the anticipation of buying me.
Jillian and I are exhausted, both of us stumbling several times from our quaking knees and fried nerves.
When we arrive back at the house, Francesca is standing at the tree line, hands clasped as she watches the hunters and prey emerge. She looks a little unhinged, most likely because one of her girls killed someone, but when her eyes find mine, they quickly take me in, checking for injuries. A subtle smile tips the corners of her pink lips when she doesn’t spot any, glee brightening her eyes. She may have a death on her hands, but the diamond still shines bright, I guess.
Glad to be of use, bitch.
Phoebe is already leaning against the back of the house, blood pouring from her wounds and staining her backside. They’ve already removed the arrows, and now they’re working to staunch the bleeding. This surprises me as much as it scares me, considering she killed a man tonight. I would’ve thought she’d never make it out of those woods alive.
She’s pale and looks delirious from the pain, but there’s a sereneness to her face that I’ve never seen before. She forced me into saving her, then turned around and saved me instead.
All I want to do is hug her tight and tell her that everything is going to be okay. Not because either of us believes she’s going to survive, but because once she’s gone, she’ll be in a better place than she is now.
Sydney comes running out, not a drop of blood in sight. I’m admittedly disappointed by that. Luckily, Gloria follows closely behind, pride shining in her eyes as she walks toward me, unscathed this time around. I begin to smile, but that small moment of elation quickly fizzles out when a large man emerges with Bethany slung over his shoulder, an arrow in her back. My eyes widen in horror, disgusted to see the arrow lodged deeply in her spine, blood soaking both her and the man who carries her.
It takes a monumental effort to keep the tears at bay, but I refuse to turn my head away from her. She doesn’t deserve for any of us to ignore her pain. Another man gathers Phoebe, and together they carry her and Bethany off.
My lip trembles, and I quickly suck it between my teeth and bite down before Francesca can spot it. I don’t know how Zade kept it together in situations like this. Maybe because he had the assurance he could kill them for it, and I… fuck, I’m so helpless.
I try to dissolve my face of any emotion, but I don’t know how successful I am when I’m watching two girls be carried off to a fate worse than death.
Sydney comes to stand beside me, purposely bumping into my shoulder, and Jillian and Gloria flank the other side of me. Francesca turns to us, a mix of pride and exhaustion shining through her made-up face.
“Only two, that’s wonderful news,” she says, even going as far as to clap her hands like a little sea otter, though it’s lackluster. I wonder if she’s going to be punished for what Phoebe did, too.
I’d love to be the one to do it. I’d take one of those arrows and stab her in the eye with it.
“As a reward, you ladies will get to pick dinner tonight. Whatever you want! McDonald’s even! Though, that stuff is horrendous for your bodies, but just this once should be okay.”
My mouth opens, but fury chokes my words tighter than a Victorian corset. In the end, I’m glad for it because only poison would’ve spewed from my mouth.
We survived the Culling, and we get fucking McDonald’s as a reward?
It’s too stupid to be real.
Sydney saves me and jumps up and down excitedly. “My favorite!” she exclaims, nearly bursting my eardrum. I flinch from the pitch, flattening my lips and working to swallow down the venomous words.
“Sounds good, Francesca. Their fries are always the best,” Gloria says, her voice tight. One glance, and I can see she and Jillian are tense, struggling to keep their expressions pleasant.
“Wonderful, let’s go in and get you girls cleaned up. There will be celebrations tonight, and you’ll be expected to mingle with the guests. Make an impression and be respectful as they could be potential buyers.”
She turns on one foot and walks off with the standard unspoken expectation for us to follow. Sydney skips after her, but not before throwing a demented look over her shoulder, turning my blood into ice.
Whatever the fuck that look meant—it’s not good. Nothing with Sydney is ever good.
“Suck it in tighter,” Francesca snaps from behind me.
“I’m trying,” I wheeze, right as she tugs on the strings for the thirtieth time. I ate the McDonald’s. Of course, it didn’t settle right because when has McDonald’s ever made anyone feel better after eating it. And now, Francesca is intent on making it come right back up.
“I think it’s tight enough,” I groan.
Pretty sure I hear a rib crack in response. It feels cruel that I’m being forced to wear a corset with this dress, but men that operate within human trafficking rings are just as stereotypical as the men who blame sexual assault on the girls’ clothing. Tiny waists are revered, but probably not as much as not having a gag reflex when a dick is shoved down your throat.
Francesca ties the knot and then helps me slip the dress over my head, the same dress all of us are required to wear. A black, silky number that accentuates my curves—my now greatly exaggerated curves. The material ends right below my ass cheeks. A butterfly could flutter by, and my dress would fly up like it’s allergic to the winged creature.
If I pass gas, it’s over.
Francesca runs her hands through my cinnamon tresses, observing me through the mirror. We’re in the beauty room, the other girls putting on their makeup, already having gone through the same torture.
“You need to do something with this hair. It’s beautiful but hides that elegant neck of yours. Don’t cover up your freckles when you put makeup on either. They accentuate your unusual eyes.”
I force a smile, scared that if I do anything more, my stomach will blow through the corset.
“I can figure something out with my hair, pin it up perhaps,” I say agreeably.
“I can do it,” Sydney chirps from behind me.
My smile drops, along with my heart. I don’t want the bitch to come a mile within my vicinity because I know damn well she’s going to pull something.
Just as I open my mouth to protest, Francesca turns to her and says dryly, “Fine, but if you do anything to her hair, I will personally see that you lose your hand.”
Sydney’s smile only grows, “Of course, I would never.”
Francesca scoffs as if she doesn’t believe her but walks away anyway. If she doesn’t believe her… then why is she walking away?
Setting my jaw, I narrow my eyes and carefully watch Sydney approach me from behind. She meets my gaze through the mirror, her cold eyes churning with an indecipherable emotion.
A secretive smile pulls her red lips up higher as she begins to sift through my hair. My shoulders are hiked up to my ears, and the tension between us thickens.
“How long have you been in this house?” I ask after a few moments of silence.
Her deft fingers start separating pieces on the side of my head and then begins French braiding a small section.
“Four years,” she responds.
I raise an eyebrow. “You’ve avoided the auctions that long?”
She smirks. “I’ve worked hard to be too unstable to be sold but too valuable to be killed. I’m good at what I do,” she finishes with a wink.
I swallow, not entirely sure how to respond to that.
She glances slyly at me, “Rio has been treating me so good lately, though. He comes to my room every night now. Says my pussy is the tightest he’s ever had.”
I arch a brow. Rio has refused to touch us during lessons, and I’ve never seen him show any interest otherwise. I’m not surprised that he’s fucking one of the girls if it’s consensual, but I am surprised that she thinks I’d give a shit.
“If that makes you happy, then good for you,” I finally say in a monotone voice.
She pauses. “You don’t care?” “Why would I care?”
“He likes you.”
I roll my eyes, annoyed by her school girl shit. She acts like we’re two girls getting ready for prom, gossiping about boys. She plays the classic mean girl act well. Pretends to be nice but all her sugary sweet words are
laced with salty insults. Too bad for her, I’m not interested in playing this game.
“You have a man at home, right? Z is his name?” she asks, noting my reaction. She pulls my hair particularly tight, and I hiss in response.
“Gentle,” I snap. She only smiles, waiting for a response to her question. “Why do you care?” I ask, my anger heightening when she runs her
hands through the rest of my hair roughly, tearing through knots.
“A sexy Puerto Rican man has the hots for you, and you don’t care.” She shrugs. “And I guess I’m curious about the man that makes you so valuable. Is he looking for you?”
Rio does not have the hots for me, but I ignore that. “Don’t we all have someone looking for us?”
She shrugs. “No,” she says simply, and I almost feel a pinch of sympathy. “Do you really believe he’s going to be able to save you?”
I flatten my lips, debating on responding at all. If I say anything incriminating, she will immediately use it against me. Twist my words and tell Francesca that I’m trying to escape or something.
“I think all of our loved ones would at least try. That’s what people do when they love you.”
I hope that hurt.
She gathers my hair together, beginning to pull it into a ponytail in the middle of my head.
“Do you think he would save me, too?” she asks quietly.
She keeps her eyes downcast, leaving me bereft of her expression.
“I think he would save everyone,” I say. And then kill her himself.
Finally, she looks up at me, a twinkle in her eye that has my muscles tightening.
“If he does, I’d be happy to suck his cock for it. Let him fuck me in the ass, too, if he really wants.”
I narrow my eyes, gritting my teeth so roughly, I’m close to cracking my molars.
“He would never touch you,” I snap. “Nor would he let you touch him.”
A gleeful smile stretches across her face, and I internally slap myself for giving her the reaction she wanted.
“I think he would once he sees how much better I am than you. I’ve been here too long not to know how to make a man come in five seconds.”
She fashions my hair into a messy coif that I’d probably consider beautiful if I knew that being anything but ugly is going to attract the wrong kinds of attention tonight.
The second her hands drop, I calmly stand and turn to face her. And then I take a page out of Zade’s handbook of being a psychopath, grab her by the neck, whip her around and slam her against the vanity. Bottles of perfume and makeup brushes topple to the floor, and I hear a gasp from one of the girls behind me.
Surprise widens her dark eyes as I come nose-to-nose with her.
“Keep pushing my buttons, Sydney. If you perceived me as weak, then you’re going to get quite the fucking reality check. I put up with your shit this long because I’m sympathetic that Mommy and Daddy don’t love you, nor does Francesca. But I will not be bullied by you and continue to stay quiet.”
She seethes at me, and her true face appears from behind that fragile, porcelain mask. The room is well lit, yet as her anger amplifies, it seems as if she pulls the shadows from the corners of the walls and shrouds them over her face. Her chin is dipped as she glares at me, but I’m not fucking scared of her.
I’ve faced far worse than her already. All it does is reignite that thrill that I’ve been missing for so long. My adrenaline is rushing, and this—this I could get off on.
“You’re a pest, Sydney.”
“And you’re going to die,” she murmurs. I laugh in her face. “Then I’ll take you down with me, bitch.”
I shove her deeper into the vanity, pushing off her and causing a few more things to knock over.
When I turn my back to her, deliberately letting her know I’m not afraid, I find Gloria staring at me with wide eyes beneath her big glasses while Jillian gets dressed in the corner, minding her own business.
I make it two steps before Francesca’s loud footsteps bound up the steps and into our room with a smile on her face. Sydney times it just right, creating a fake coughing fit the moment she heard Francesca coming.
And when she sees Sydney sprawled against the vanity, coughing as she clutches her neck dramatically, I already know what she’s going to pull.
“What happened?” Francesca barks.
Sydney points at me. “She choked me! Pushed me against the vanity and choked me.”
Francesca’s eyes turn to me, and I meet her stare head-on, making sure to keep my face neutral.
I’m not going to get into a she started it fight and present myself as emotionally unstable as she is.
Her brown eyes assess me closely, but the adrenaline has taken hold in my bloodstream, and all I can feel is… elation. Heat has warmed every inch of my body, sinking low into my stomach.
If Zade were here…
I force those thoughts out of my head before they sweep me away. If I let that happen, I’d be humping the air, and not only would that be fucking embarrassing, but I’m also in the number one worst place in the world to get horny.
After a pregnant pause, Francesca meets Sydney’s stare. “You probably deserved it.”
I smother the smile before it can emerge, but fuck is it hard when she gasps loudly in response.
“Go to your room until I call you down,” she orders harshly.
Sydney rushes past me, but I feel her intention from a mile away. I step out of her path before she can knock into me, which only serves to make her angrier. Her head whips around, and the glare she shoots my way is pure hatred before she disappears.
Clearing my throat, I lower my head. Hopefully Francesca sees it as submission, and not a last-ditch effort to contain how pleased I am.
I feel her eyes boring into me, and a bead of sweat forms on my hairline. Knowing the drill, Gloria and Jillian line up beside me, effectively distracting her.
“Tonight, is about having fun, but make sure you present yourselves as ladies. Don’t act like sluts but be docile and compliant. You all are allowed one drink tonight. I won’t tolerate any of you making drunken fools out of yourselves.” She pauses. “Make me proud tonight, girls.”