She crossed her knees, clamping a hand over her breasts.
I swallowed hard, hating that my cock twitched.
Her mouth parted, then understanding flared. “Not who. What.” Looking down at herself, she whispered, “The perils of vertigo.”
I had no reply to that. She already had a condition that hurt her. I should be easy to bear.
“Put your arm down.” I slapped it away from her breasts. She stiffened but left it by her side, standing taller than before.
Holding out the tiny excuse of an apron, I placed it over her head. It was black with white lacy trim, low enough to show the tops of her breasts and nipples, short enough to show the trimmed delight between her legs.
Spinning her around, I tied the strings at her neck and lower spine. When she faced me again, she choked, “Why?”
“Why?” I raised an eyebrow.
She nodded. “Is this all a game to you?”
I smiled. “No game. We’re deadly serious. As you should know by now.” Leaving her, I returned to the table and collected the final item. The Weaver heirloom.
Prowling back to her, I held up the collar.
Her eyes popped wide. She gawked at the solid encrusted diamond collar made from our very own imports. Two hundred carats, valued at over three million pounds—it’d been in my family since the first debt had been claimed.
“Do you know what this is?” I whispered, dangling it in front of her face.
She clamped her lips, eyes deathly cold.
I didn’t need a reply. She’d know soon enough.
Unlocking the collar, I held the two ends and bent over her. Wrapping it around her throat, I moved from front to back, positioning myself to fasten it. I kept my voice low and soothing, embracing my cold ruthlessness again. “It’s affectionately known as the Weaver Wailer.” Using the special clasp—an irreversible clasp—I murmured, “It’s your gift from us. Jewels from the best of our mines. You should be proud to wear such wealth.”
Nila shivered as the lock snapped into place.
My shoulders relaxed. It was on. It was done.
Her option to leave had just disappeared.
“You’re ours now. Want to know why?”
She whimpered, shaking her head.
Gathering her thick black hair, I ignored her plea for ignorance. I’d told her ignorance was bliss—which was true. But I meant to torment her. I wanted her to fully embrace her future.
Breathing gently on her neck, I whispered, “Because once the Weaver Wailer is in place…there’s only one way to get it back off.”
“ENOUGH PLAYING, JETHRO, bring her here.”
The command burned my ears, turning my false belief I could survive into dirty soot. The fire I’d nursed inside was gone. All the stupid pretending that I could block the worst from damaging my soul disappeared. My little claws had fully retracted into nothing once again.
I was cold. Cold as him.
Shut down. Same as him.
Silent. Same as him.
Only one way to get it off.
I swallowed. My head pounded. My hands flew up to tug at the jewelled collar. It was heavy and lifeless and ice. Pure ice. The perfect clarity and flawless sparkle of the diamonds leached into my skin, claiming me, marking me.
Only one way to get it off.
I thought I’d come to terms with my mortality. I thought I’d face the end with my head held high and dry eyes—but that was before they told me the method of my execution. When I thought of death I pictured…nothing…I had no image of how the end would come.
Now I did.
Only one way to get it off.
I was to be beheaded.
There’d be no sawing off the collar or picking the lock. The way the clasp snapped so resolutely hinted at a one way mechanism. The heavy noose was now mine…an accessory slowly strangling me by diamonds.
It wasn’t breakable. But I was. So fragile really, when a single sharp blade could cast me from life into the nether. Diamonds were nature’s hardest fortress—the quintessential marriage of unbreakable ice and power.
A new unwanted respect curdled in my stomach. Jethro said his mines. Their mines. Diamonds were pure but the method of collection had a chequered history of death and violence.
They didn’t just play the part of untouchables. They were untouchable.
My tugging fingers turned frantic. I arched my neck, searching with an edge of insanity for a weakness in the soldered white gold and gemstones. It had to come off.
It has to.
I didn’t have the strength to die. I didn’t have the martyrdom to let them do this. Not for family. Not for fortune. I’m weak. I don’t want to die!
Jethro grabbed my wrists, effortlessly pulling my arms away from my throat. My eyes opened and all I saw was malevolent stone. There was no compassion in his light-brown eyes. No sympathy or even guilt. How did he have the power to be so close to me—to grow hard wanting me—and know all along my fate?
Only a special person could do that. A person who wasn’t born of this world but brimstone and fire. From hell.
I struggled in his hold, breathing hard. The collar settled heavily, still spreading its heinous ice. “I was wrong about you,” I hissed.
Jethro placed my hands by my sides, then let me go. He shrugged, running a palm through his thick salt-and-pepper hair. “I’ve been nothing but forthright and honest from the beginning. You’re the one who spun a lie from the truth. You’re the one who ignored everything I was telling you.”
Turning to face the table, he wrapped a cold arm around my waist. “And now it’s time to face the reality of everything you tried to ignore.”
Mr. Hawk, with his ridiculous tweed and leather outfit, stubbed out a smouldering cigar. “Did you tell her?”
Jethro stiffened. “I forgot.”
His father reclined into the high-backed chair and folded his hands on his stomach. “You were meant to tell her when you put it on. It’s called the Weaver Wailer and it belonged to…”
A loud screeching sound exploded in my ears. My stomach rolled. Vertigo spread its nullifying tentacles through my brain.
It’s the necklace. The one she wore when she came back the final time.
Jethro looked down, trying to capture my eyes, but I wouldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. I kept my vision blank, looking resolutely over his shoulder. “I think you’ve already guessed who it belonged to.” Lowering his voice, he whispered, “The last person to wear this collar was your mother. She wore it for two years and twenty-three days before it was…forcibly removed. It carries not only the diamonds of my bloodline but also blood from yours. We, of course, clean it thoroughly after every owner, but if you look closely, I’m sure you’ll see the tarnish of their lives given in return for their crimes.”
“Nila, when you’re a big girl, you can wear my clothes, shoes, and jewellery, but you have to grow a little taller before that day.” My mother laughed, looking down at me on the floor of her walk-in wardrobe. I’d not only raided her jewellery box and draped myself in gemstones but wore a feather boa with a baggy one piece swimming suit and giant high heels. I thought I looked incredible. For a seven-year-old.
Holding up the pearls around my neck, I said, “Promise? I can have these when I’m your size?”
She ducked, pulling me into a hug. “You can have everything of mine. Why?”
I smiled. I knew the answer to this. “Because you love me.”
She nodded. “Because I love you.”
The memory came and went, stealing the firm ground beneath my feet and sending me headfirst into nausea. Spirals, loop de loops, and spin-cycles all churned my brain until I didn’t know up from down.
It wasn’t vertigo this time but grief.
Crushing, crashing grief. A grief I hadn’t suffered because all my happy memories of her had been blocked by the wall of hatred. She was supposed to be the bad guy for leaving my father. I’d been safe from hurting. Safe from reliving everything with the knowledge of how precious she was. How tragic her life became and for two years after she’d left. Two years we didn’t try and save her.
The Hawks had stripped her from me and torn away any armour I had against missing her. She wasn’t the bad guy. They were. They would all die for this. They would rot for eternity. I would find a way.
Please, let me find a way.
I wore a necklace every firstborn woman in my family wore before they were murdered—I was owed serious revenge. Disgusting, painful revenge.
A sob escaped my mouth. I couldn’t fight the spinning anymore and doubled over. With a sickening splash, I threw up all over Jethro’s shiny black shoes.
“Fuck.” He jumped back, not that there was much mess. It’d been almost twenty-four hours since I’d eaten—I had nothing to waste or purge. But the dry heaves wouldn’t stop racking my frame.
“For fuck’s sake, Jet. Get her under control. We don’t have all day.” Mr. Hawk’s voice shouted across the room.
Cold hands grabbed my shoulders, jerking me from bowed to straight. I moaned as my head sloshed with pain.
“Stop embarrassing me,” Jethro snarled.
Embarrassing him? Bastard. Arsehole. Son of Satan. I glowered with tear-swimming eyes into Jethro’s cold uncompassionate gaze. Something flicked over his gold irises—a dark shadow. That was the only warning I received before his hand came up and struck me around the side of the head.
I thought I was brave. I thought I was strong. But I’d never been struck before. Daniel’s slap in the car last night didn’t count. This abuse had come from a black place—a place inside Jethro where unsurmountable anger boiled. And it was endless. He may be a glacier on the outside but in there…in his heart…he steamed with pressuring rage.
Crashing to my knees, I curled my smarting head into my arms. I came from a family who loved each other so much, a disappointed look or stern word was enough to break your heart. Physical abuse wasn’t something I knew. It wasn’t something I could prepare for.
Jethro grabbed my hair, pulling me upright. I held onto his wrists to prevent the tearing pain. My blurry gaze focused on his grey shirt and perfectly creased jeans.
He glared. “You’ll clean that up, but for now you have other things to attend to.”
Not letting go of my hair, he carted me toward his father. Every step I took, I tried to hide my exposed breasts and ignore the breeze between my naked legs. The pinafore Jethro had put on me barely covered my stomach let alone valuable places. Places I would give my entire design line to have covered. The stupid maid cap tilted to the side, clinging to my tangled hair.
I couldn’t count how many men existed around the table, but their eyes never met mine. Most were glued to my chest or mesmerized lower down as I side-shuffled to hide as much of my decency as possible.
But it wasn’t just their eyes sending spider legs scurrying over my flesh. It was the huge immaculate paintings of men wearing white wigs, elegant coat and tails, and hunting regalia glaring down from the dark red walls.
Their eyes weren’t lifeless but full of distain—somehow they knew a Weaver was in their midst and the crackling fireplace was useless to stop my chill.
My sentence was to be carried out with ancestors and family heirlooms as witnesses.
The moment we came to a stop beside Mr. Hawk, sitting in his ornate dining chair, Jethro jerked my neck back. His flawless face filled my vision. “You are no longer free. Look. See your future and understand there’s no sweet talking, begging, or bargaining your way out of this. You wear the collar. You’re ours completely.” Jethro’s voice was artic, glittering with power.
The collar cut into my skin. I wanted to spit in his face.
Shoving me toward Mr. Hawk, the old man snaked an arm around my naked waist, tugging me onto his lap.
“Obey and make me proud, Ms. Weaver,” Jethro said, crossing his arms. He shifted to stand behind his father’s chair, removing himself from the role of authority, becoming merely a spectator.
He’s never called me Nila.
The stupid thought came and went on a heartbeat. Jethro was yet to use my first name.
I shuddered, feeling overwhelmingly sick again.
Jethro was awful but being disowned and handed over to a room full of men was worse. I would’ve given anything to avoid was what about to happen. I would willingly trade all my nights in a bed and return to the kennels. The hounds were loving, kind…warm.
I sat frozen on Mr. Hawk’s lap.
His hand rested on my upper thigh, not violating but terrifying. “Now that we all understand each other, I want you to look at something for me, Nila. Then the festivities will begin. Every man you serve, you’ll receive another snippet of your history. Only once you’ve completed your task will you know the entire story and will be free to spend the afternoon either in the steam baths below the house as a reward or in solitary confinement in the dungeons as punishment, depending on how well you please us.”
I couldn’t understand how my body still functioned. Shock turned my limbs to statues, fear made me mute—I died inside until there was no part of me left. But still my heart kept pumping; my blood kept flowing—staying alive only for their sick pleasure.
The weight of my mother’s collar bit into my neck and a question came from no-where. My mother was a Weaver. Her mother before her was a Weaver. But wouldn’t they have changed their names according to the surname of their husbands?
I blinked, trying to remember my father’s last name.
“You look confused. I’ll permit you to ask a question before we proceed,” Mr. Hawk said, settling me higher on his knee.
I fought my cringe, struggling to formulate the words. “My mother’s maiden name was Weaver, but she would’ve changed it when she got married.” I glanced at Jethro behind his father’s chair. He tilted his chin, looking down his nose.