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Authors: Heather Hildenbrand

Tags: #Young Adult, #Romance

Deviation (3 page)

BOOK: Deviation
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“Someone check out that address,” Titus says to someone outside the open doorway. Footsteps fade and he turns back to the men hovering over Melanie. “Well?” Titus prompts. “Is she alive or not?”

“Sir,” one of the guards calls from his one-knee-to-the-floor position beside Melanie. He has two fingers pressed to Melanie’s throat below her ear. His brows are scrunched and his lips are pressed tightly together. He waits three more beats before answering, “She’s dead.”

Titus lets out some sound that reminds me of an eye roll even though I don’t see him do it. And that is enough. His sigh of frustration is all it takes for me to lose it. I turn to him and, as if in slow motion, my eyes widen to their largest points. My feet move long before I realize I’ve told them to and then I am in front of Titus, banging on his chest, screaming so loudly I can’t think or hear or feel a single thing outside of the mantra I repeat as I strike out with my nails for his eyeballs. “Monster! Monster! Monster!”

Titus jumps back but I am right there, moving with him, bludgeoning him with fisted blows to the chest, swiping at his jaw, kicking his shins. I scream and rant and cry and release all of the fear and fury I carry for him. I cannot stop. I cannot breathe. I cannot care about a single consequence or the death sentence I am giving myself every single time my body makes contact with his.

“Monster! Monster! Monster!” I continue to scream, but it sounds breathless in my own ears now.

Titus moves again, this time somehow making it into the hallway. The guards are trying to pry me away but I lash out at them and free my arm one last time. I catch Titus in the eye and rake my nail down the squishy surface. He cries out and turns away. The shock of my success gives me pause.

I swing out again but it’s too late. My distraction was the opening he needed to get his bearings.

A wiry hand closes over my throat and my scream is abruptly cut off. Titus no longer looks bored or mildly inconvenienced. He is furiously calm and fully focused on inflicting pain. His hand around my throat squeezes hard and I choke once before that sound is also silenced by the closing of my windpipe. I try to gasp but it’s no more than a muted croak. My throat burns and my mind screams in panic. It is Melanie all over again, except this time I know it won’t end until I’ve stopped breathing.

Black dots dance at the edge of my vision. I suddenly remember my limbs and swing out with my hands. Titus sinks a fist into my gut so fast, I don’t see it coming before the wind is knocked out of me. I couldn’t breathe if he let go anyway. My body convulses and goes limp and for a few agonizing seconds; the only thing holding me in place against the wall is the pressure of Titus’s hand as it squeezes away my life force.

I am both horrified and hopeless as I stare into the eyes of the man who is both my Creator and my killer. It isn’t dying I fear, but the utter void that comes after. I can’t bear the thought of being nothing in just a few moments and Titus will still be here, being everything to a world that thinks he’s one of the good ones.

It is so unfair that my life would be so pointless.

I try to gasp as the ability to breathe returns to my lungs from the hit I took in the stomach. Without the benefit of oxygen accompanying it, the pain increases and the black dots dance their way to center stage. I don’t have minutes. I have seconds.

I kick out again but it’s a lame attempt and, even though I make contact, Titus doesn’t even seem to notice. He is staring at me with something in his eyes that wasn’t there before. It’s a recognition of sorts, as if he’s really only now seeing me for the first time. I tip my chin up to try and gain passageway through my windpipe, looking down at him over the tip of my nose.

Something in his expression shifts again. “You push me, daughter,” he says softly. “Always pushing. But I’m not ready yet. You have work to do and I won’t be denied.”

Blood trickles from the open cut originating in his eyelid. It flares red and waters every time he blinks. Despite the gentleness in his voice, he is still every inch a monster. My stomach jumps, or maybe it’s the nausea threatening. Before I can decipher any of it, or convince myself I’m not imagining it, Titus releases me and steps back.

I fall in a heap, arms and legs tingling and pricking as blood flow resumes at a normal rate. I don’t care about any of it nearly as much as I relish the air passing through my windpipe and into my lungs. It burns deliciously and fills me with dizzy relief.

“What did she thank you for?” he demands.

“I … I don’t know,” I croak, too miserable to worry about the lie. It’s automatic. It’s the least of my worries.

“I would advise you to make it a priority to figure it out. Or hope I find what I’m looking for at that address. I’m running very thin on patience. Your inconvenience is fast outweighing your purpose,
product
.”

His words are a bite that sinks into the soft place in my heart. They render me silent, intimidated, cowered. But then I remember Melanie. And why this started in the first place. I raise my head to say something—what, I don’t know, since there isn’t much that won’t get me killed—but I don’t get a chance.

Before my mouth is fully open, Titus snaps a command to the guards and I am lifted clear off my feet and carried away. I squirm and twist but I’m still too distracted by sucking oxygen to really fight. In a few steps, I am set on my feet again. The air is different and I don’t have time to understand before the guard leaves me alone and pulls a door shut behind me. Like the others, it clicks softly as the lock engages, and I am alone.

No, that’s not true, I realize as I scan the room they’ve deposited me into. Just like the last, the cell smells like sweat and blood and pain. The setup is nearly the same except there is a bucket of water on the floor beside the bed and someone is splashing water from it up to their elbows. The lighting is different here too. It’s even dimmer with the bulb set closer to the ceiling. It throws everything into moody shadow, including the figure in the far corner bathing from the edge of the bed. Still, I don’t need facial recognition to know where I am.

Titus and his men have left me in the only place worse than killing me. I am in Daniel’s cell. And he is unbound.

 

Chapter Two

I suck in air over and over, trying to slow the flow of adrenaline that surges through me. Titus. Melanie. The blood. The guard who carried me here. Faces; arms; legs; a manicured hand around my throat. My mind is a whir of the last few minutes. It is hard to process and focus on any one thing.

Until my eyes adjust to the dim light.

Across the room I see him moving. Then my mind is so singularly focused that everything else drops away. There is only him, methodical movements and quiet confidence, and me, jerking hands and heaving lungs.

I almost died a moment ago. Soon, I might wish I had.

“Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?” The careless lilt in Daniel’s voice means he’s either unharmed or he’s even more unhinged than she is—was.

I’m too far away and the lighting is too low for me to tell whether it’s the first. My mind fills with the possibilities of the second. My broken thoughts take me down a million paths that all lead back to Melanie. To her screaming and shaking and coughing and oozing. To my part in it all. To my promise.

Even the memory—and the physical sting—left behind by Titus’s hand on my throat can’t drown out my guilt. I created this. Maybe not for Daniel; his actions led him here on his own. But for Melanie’s death, I am responsible. For my almost-death because I couldn’t keep it together, I am responsible. For whatever happens next to the warehouse across town full of hidden Imitations, I am responsible.

I press my lips together to keep sound from escaping. All I want to do is curl into the back corner of my designer closet and cry until my eyes are dry and my soul is numb.

As I watch, Daniel continues to splash water from the bucket onto his exposed arms. His undershirt must’ve been white once but has now faded to a chalky gray. He doesn’t seem to notice or care that cleaning the dirt from his arms only makes his shirt and pants look even dirtier. My stomach is a churning mess and I still can’t catch my breath. It’s as if my thoughts are still inside Melanie’s cell, struggling to catch up to the moment—to catch up to how I got in here or how I’m still alive.

“You came all the way down here to see me and you’re not even going to say hello?” Daniel asks when the silence has stretched.

I open my mouth to answer, but shut it again before I can make my voice work. He is staring at me now, his bucket of bathwater momentarily forgotten. Even in the dim lighting, I can see the spark in his eyes. It is the same spark he wore in the parlor the last time I saw him, when he tried to—

“I am Ven,” I say. “Not …
her.

More splashing and dripping. More silence.

And then, “I know who you are,” he says softly.

His mattress creaks as he presses his hands down against it and pushes himself to his feet. I freeze. Maybe if I’m very still, he’ll stay there and I can stay here and—

“I was wrong last time,” he says, his steps excruciatingly steady as he approaches.

I let my hair fall into my eyes and stare at his feet, willing them to stop. I don’t know what he was wrong about, but I don’t care. I only want him to stay back. I stare at his hands swinging at his sides. Hands that are free to touch me wherever they want until Titus finally decides to unlock the door. And then something inside my brain clicks and I know what I have to do to save myself.

Information. Titus wants it. Daniel has it.

I clear my throat and my knees buckle at the pain it causes. Titus may have stopped suffocating me in time, but the pain from my crushed throat feels like death. I stumble back three steps until I hit the wall, uncaring that it’s dirty and gross against my designer dress. The wall holds me up where my own limbs cannot.

I will my voice to work but it comes out hoarse, no more than a whisper. “What were you wrong about?” I ask.

Daniel is almost in front of me, dragging a pair of threadbare slippers across the floor with each step. I force my eyes up to his, silently begging him to answer. To talk to me instead of … whatever else he is thinking of doing.

He doesn’t answer right away and there’s something different in his expression now that he’s close. Something that wasn’t there during our last encounter. For a moment, he is just a boy. Torn and broken and in love with a memory of something he can’t quite grasp. In that instant, the memory has won over the villain, and I exhale in relief. I am unafraid, even when he leans so close I can smell his breath and I recoil from the stale odor of personal hygiene forgotten.

“You are you,” he says.

My brows knit as I try to understand his words that are perplexing in their simplicity.

He raises his hand and I flinch away, but he only slides his fingertips over my collarbone. His hand brushes my hair aside and traces a trail around the side of my neck to my tattoo—the tree that is the symbol of Twig City and my seven-digit identification number, a mark that proves I am something not quite human.

“Four-two-six-six-two-five-six,” he reads in a soft voice. “You are most certainly you.”

My skin tingles with goose bumps where he touches. I shiver and he removes his hand, the tips of his fingers hovering so close I can sense him even after his touch is gone. I tip my head so that I can see into his eyes and my stomach rolls with nerves and the intensity of the moment. This is not the Daniel I knew. This Daniel is compassionate and caring. This Daniel is lucid.

“He hurt you,” he whispers.

It’s not a question, but I dip my chin once in a nod. When I raise it again, he hooks a finger underneath my jaw and tilts it up so that he can inspect my throat. A deep frown creases the edges of his mouth. It is the first sign of unhappiness he’s shown. My breath slows and I am completely on edge as I wait for his next move. He tips my face back down so that we are eye to eye again and leans in, his lips near my ear.

“I won’t give them up. No matter what he does to me, their secret is safe,” he whispers.

“Why?” I can’t help but ask.

“For you. For all of the yous there are. But especially for her.” He presses his lips to my neck and before I can answer or react to the gesture, he straightens and steps back.

The odd sparkle in his eye returns along with a crooked smirk on his lips. Fear curls inside the pit of my stomach. The Daniel I knew is back.

“What I can’t figure out is whether you’re here as a punishment or a reward,” he says loudly. The innuendo is clear and I shiver again, this time with more trepidation than before. It dawns on me that his kiss from a moment ago felt a hundred times more harmless than the tone he is using now. I can’t figure out why. Or what he’s playing at, because it’s clear he’s playing. Only, I don’t know the game. Or the rules.

“Are you here to interrogate me, little Ven?” he asks with laughter in his voice.

“No,” I say. Not because it’s true but because I know I have to say something. Titus is watching. And Daniel just made a whispered promise that I don’t want to give away just yet. My thoughts race at the “her” he meant. Was it his mother? Or the other Raven? The one that came before me? The one he swears he loves? It doesn’t matter. He’s promising silence and in exchange, I allow our game to continue.

I force myself not to glance at the mirrored wall over Daniel’s shoulder. “I’m here to offer comfort,” I say.

Daniel laughs. It is a harsh sound, promising something even harsher to come, but for some reason, I am not afraid like I was before. “Mmm, is that what we’re going to call it?” he asks. “Tell me, what exactly are you willing to do to make me feel better?”

I swallow hard. What am I willing to do? He whispered a promise. But I can’t trust him. He tried to—

“Are you going to warm me up?” he presses. “Because it already feels pretty hot.” Without waiting for an answer, he yanks on the hem of his shirt and pulls it off. His chest and abs are a patchwork of half-healed wounds. Most of them are red and raised like burns but many are covered over in angry scratches and deep cuts.

My stomach jumps into my throat. I cough and immediately regret it. The searing pain in my lungs shoots all the way to my knees.

“Daniel, stop,” I warn. I would back up if I weren’t already pressed against the wall so hard my spine aches.

“Why should I?” Daniel sneers, his expression suddenly twisting into something ugly and angry. “He doesn’t.” He takes a step toward me again, his fingers fumbling with the button on his pants. “He never stops. He’s here every day, twisting the knife. First it was physical, but—” he pauses and makes a sound like being hurt is no big deal, “that was nothing. When he realized that, he tried going after the things I love.” He laughs and it is the farthest from humor I’ve ever heard. “Guess the joke’s on him.”

He is in my face again, this time staring down at me with jutted chin and fiery eyes. He presses a hand against the wall on either side of my head, trapping me there. “I love nothing,” he hisses. His breath washes over my face, sour and acidic like his words.

“Not even Melanie?” I ask quietly. Because I have to end this. Even if it means risking his silence. I won’t let him touch me.

He blinks. “She is nothing to me,” he says, but it’s not true. We both know it. The hesitation was subtle but it was there. I feel better, knowing he cares about her after all. Knowing he’s capable.

I don’t sugarcoat it. Daniel isn’t the type for slow build-up. He’s the type to rip the bandage off all at once. “She’s dead, Daniel,” I say.

“What?” He blinks again, as if uncomprehending of my words—or unwilling to accept them as quickly as I said them.

“Titus sent me to see her first. Her wounds were … extensive,” I explain, my voice cracking and repairing itself every other word. “She got upset with me. She was coughing and screaming and she wouldn’t calm down.” Tears burn my eyes as I talk. I am giving him the shortest version I can and still, it’s like re-breaking the same bone over and over again.

I see her there, lying with her knees in the air and her hands trapped behind her. Red hair turned dull and spread around her like the ashes of a waterlogged fire. I swallow my own sob and continue, “She kept screaming at me and rocking the chair and—she tipped the chair and hit her head on the floor. It was instant. I’m … I’m sorry.”

His eyes search mine, for what I don’t know. I can’t hold his gaze long enough to find out. Tears course down my cheeks. I only know it because I see a puddle between my high-heeled feet where I stare at the ground. I wait for the crazy, but Daniel just stands there. Soaking me in.

The silence stretches until I can’t stare at my pooling tears, nor can I shed them any longer. Not yet. It’s too much like him winning. Again.

Slowly, I raise my head and brush my hair back from my face. Daniel studies me, still searching and soaking. And I don’t mind because he doesn’t look like he’s deciding how best to kill or kiss me.

“He brought her in here every day to show me her wounds. I don’t know what he used but I could hear her—” He squeezes his eyes shut. When he opens them again, they aren’t focused on anything in this room. “I could hear her screaming. He used her screams in place of mine. But she never told him anything. Not a single detail. So I didn’t either. I knew what it did to her, but she took it anyway. And every time they carried her in here, the times she was conscious, she would just look at me and shake her head no. So I honored her wishes. I thought—” He runs a shaking hand through his hair. It sticks up in the center, too oily and unwashed to fall back into the haphazard disarray he wore it in before.

“What?”

He walks back to his bed and sits, slumped over, staring at his hands. I wait, not wanting to rush him. I don’t know why or even when it happened, but at some point I became willing to forgive Daniel for what he tried to do, if only he continues to behave forgivably.

When he finally speaks, there is too much defeat in his voice for him to be evil. He is only a boy. And he is beaten. “It was all for nothing. He wins. He always wins.”

 

BOOK: Deviation
11.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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