Her Last Goodbye Page 18

“Throw in high stress levels and a bunch of very young people with outrageous IQs and weak social skills,” Lance added. “It was like a high school in there.”

“Right?” Morgan laughed. “I felt like such a mom.”

She crossed her legs, the movement drawing Lance’s eye fast enough to treat him to a quick flash of pretty thigh. “I don’t think Kirk saw you as a mom.”

And neither did Lance, despite the fact that he loved her kids.

“No?” She seemed cheered by his comment.

“No.” Lance wasn’t giving Kirk a pass because of his autism. The kid had acted weird toward Morgan and even weirder when they’d talked about Chelsea. Until she turned up, no one was getting a pass for any reason except a solid alibi.

Chapter Twelve

Pain surrounded Chelsea. Her entire body hurt. Was there any body part he hadn’t battered?

Not that she could find.

She opened her eyes. They were so swollen that all she could manage were slits. Her vision blurred. She lifted a hand to her face and barely recognized its tender contours.

Giving up, she lay still for a while. Her ribs were bruised. Every time she drew in a breath, it felt as if she was wearing a corset of nails.

Pain rolled over her in waves but eased as she breathed more deeply and smoothly.

You can’t give up!

Chelsea forced her eyelids open a bit farther and scanned the room as much as she could without moving her head. She was still in the shipping container. Still chained to the barrel. She lay on her side, curled naked on the plywood, in the corner where she’d crawled in a feeble attempt to get away from him.

But there had been no escaping.

As punishment for trying to open the drum, he’d ripped the clothes from her body. He’d taken away the cot, the blanket, and the water and left her shivering in an empty metal box.

After a few minutes, she lifted her head a fraction of an inch. The first movement sent dizziness careening though her. Dehydration? She swallowed. Vomiting wasn’t possible. She was so empty she felt hollow. She hadn’t had anything to drink since he’d beaten her, and she didn’t remember when she’d last eaten.

Still, her stomach heaved as she slowly tested each limb with a tiny movement. She curled her toes and clenched her fingers, bent each knee and elbow. Her muscles protested, but her bones felt miraculously intact. There was no blinding agony to indicate a mortal injury; instead she felt an all-over soreness and exhaustion that made her not want to move at all. But that wasn’t an option.

Do something or die.

She put both hands on the plywood and pushed her torso off the floor. The dizziness passed and she sat upright, leaning against the corrugated wall. The metal was cold on her bare back, and she shivered violently.

The cold helped to clear her head as she scanned her body. Her skin was mottled with bruises. She put a hand to her swollen mouth. Dried blood caked her split lips. She found a painful lump on her scalp.

But swelling and bruises seemed to be the worst of it. The rest of her injuries seemed to be superficial. Extensive, but not life-threatening.

As if he knew exactly how hard he could hit her without causing major damage.

As if he’d done it before.

Movement seemed to ease the stiffness in her body a little. She peeled her tongue off the roof of her mouth. Dehydration was the biggest threat. Without water, she wouldn’t survive much longer.

There was nothing to do except wait. Rest. Heal. When an opportunity presented itself, she needed to be ready.

She looked up at the hole in the ceiling. The sky was dark. Nighttime. She tried to determine how long she’d been here but couldn’t.

The sound of a padlock being opened and chains rattling startled her. She jerked to full alertness, pain jolting through her limbs at the sudden movement.

The door opened, and he stepped inside. The mask made him featureless, and her insides shivered. Her gaze locked on the gallon jug of water in his hand. His other hand was behind his back, and she eyed it with suspicion.

“You’re awake.” His head tilted as he assessed her. “Finally.”

Had he been in before? Had he watched her while she’d slept?

A shudder racked her bones. Her mouth opened to respond to his greeting, but somewhere deep in her mind a warning bell sounded.

Rule number one: Do what he says.

Her mouth automatically clamped shut, as if it had been trained like a dog. Her eyes refused to travel to his face.

Rule number two: Keep my eyes on the floor.

“Do you think you’ve learned your lesson?” he asked.

Staring at her bare feet, she nodded.

“Good. I knew you were smart.” He sounded pleased. He set the jug of water at her feet. “You may drink.”

Bending forward, she grabbed for the water. Her weak, bruised arms tapping into some survival reserve. She removed the cap and drank. Water spilled into her mouth and over her chin. The cool liquid soothed her throat and lips. Her body demanded more.

“Wasting what I give you is disrespectful.” His tone sharpened.

Fear shot through her. Cringing, she braced for a blow, but it never came. She lowered the jug, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and swallowed. Then raising the water again, she sipped slowly.

Neatly.

“That’s my girl.” His praise was a relief, the way she craved it a horror.

But her instinct told her she had to adapt to survive. Without water, she wouldn’t live long. She must do whatever it took to keep him happy . . . so he didn’t leave her in here until she shriveled up and died.

Because she knew in her soul that he would do so the moment she was more trouble than she was worth.

What did he want with her?

Water sloshed in her empty stomach. She set the jug on the floor. As much as she wanted to drain it, she feared losing what she’d already drank.

“Since you’re being such a good girl, I have something else for you.” He brought the hand behind his back around. He held the wool blanket, folded in a neat rectangle. On top of it was another piece of cloth. He set the blanket on the floor and shook out the other item—a bright-yellow dress. He leaned forward and offered it to her. “Put this on.”

She scooted forward and took it from his hands. Turning it the right way, she drew it over her head. The dress was long-sleeved, empire-waisted, with a hemline just below her knees. Though the fabric was thin cotton, it was better than nothing. She drew the skirt over her bent knees.

“Do you remember rule number three?” he asked.

Fear curled in her belly as she struggled to remember all he’d shouted at her after the beating. But a blow to the head, the one that had given her the lump behind her ear, had left her ears ringing.

Her hands began to tremble. She bent her fingers into fists. A tear left her eye and dripped down her cheek as she shook her head.

“I’ll go over them one more time,” he said in a patient voice. “And you will memorize them. Further transgressions won’t be tolerated. Understood?”

She nodded.

“Let’s review.” He crossed his arms. “And pay attention. Memorizing the rules might earn you some food.”

At the mention of food, Chelsea’s stomach clenched painfully. She strained to listen.

“One, you belong to me. You will do what I say without question. You are my property. Two, when in my presence, you will keep your eyes on the floor. Three, no speaking without permission. Four, disobedience is punishable any way I see fit. Can you repeat those back to me?”

Chelsea nodded but waited for his cue. In her peripheral vision, she saw the cruel smile twist his mouth.

“You may speak.” His voice rang with satisfaction.

Mumbling through swollen lips, she repeated his rules.

“You learn quickly.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a protein bar. He held it out to her. She tried to grab it, but he raised it just out of reach at the last second.

With his free hand, he grabbed a handful of her hair. “Know this. I am not fucking around. If you ever try to escape again, I will beat every inch of you bloody, slit your throat, and bury you in the woods. Do you understand?”

Pain seared her scalp. Chelsea’s bones shook as she nodded, grateful he hadn’t asked her to speak because fear had paralyzed her vocal cords. Terror shook her body down to her bones.

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