“How could you?!” He shook me harder, my head bouncing on my neck. “What did you think you were doing here, huh? That you were being my savior? That each meal you fed me, each time you listened to me crying out like some pitiful creature, you were doing something good? My own personal guardian fucking angel. Well, I have news for you, Gemma goddamn Ashford. You might have just brought me back to life, but you’ve killed me this winter. You’ve killed both of us!”
The room spun. Stars danced on my vision. “Stop shaking me.” I twisted, trying to get out of his hold. “Kas, please—”
He dropped me.
He blinked as if I’d spoken a different language.
And then, I saw my mistake.
I called him by his name.
His slave name at least.
A name he hadn’t given me himself.
THE RINGING IN MY ears fell echoingly silent.
A switch from concussed buzzing to aching quietness. A deadly sort of quietness where I was aware of everything. Of my heart pounding, my lungs breathing, my very fucking blood gushing through my veins.
Every synapse locked onto the woman swaying before me. The hazy vision from my head injury realigned into crystal clarity. Everything about her, I noticed. From her dusky blond eyelashes, slight sheen on her forehead, glistening lips from her tongue, to the panic blooming in her gold-flecked hazel eyes.
We stood in an orb. A circle of silence and nothingness that’d snapped around us the moment she said my name. The only name I could remember. A name that filled me with filth. A name I hadn’t heard aloud since I’d freed my family.
A sharp lance of agony cut through my skull. The bubble around us faltered, fracturing down the middle like a crack in glass, spider webs of brokenness clinging together before the inevitable explosion.
How much had I said in my sleep to this woman? What the hell had she gleaned from the misery I wallowed in? My past was mine. Not hers. She wasn’t entitled to my pain. She wasn’t allowed to know the extent of my suffering because that would change things between us. It would make her bold. It would give her far, far too much courage to stand up to me.
It’s already changed things.
The silence stretched as my fingernails dug deep into my palms. My fists shook, wanting to strike. Someone. Something. I wanted to hit her, and the discipline it took to refuse such an urge crucified me.
She deserved to feel a fraction of her betrayal. Over and over, this goddamn woman hurt me. Her appearance. Her actions. Her care. Her tricks. How was I supposed to stay safe when she was the exact fucking opposite of the word?
I inhaled hard, shaking my head from the black shadows creeping over me. The bubble strained around us. One last pulse of quietness. A single second before anarchy would rain.
“I didn’t mean to upset you.” She licked her lips nervously, her gaze dancing over my face, searching for my reaction. “I...I’m sorry...Kas.”
I winced as another hot poker drove through my skull.
The second shattered.
And I gave her my reaction.
My teeth stayed tight together as I spoke. “That name came from a book. It’s not mine. It was never mine. Yet you have the audacity to use it.” My fingernails pierced my palms as more rage filtered through my hands. I really, really wanted to strike her. I’d spent a lifetime being made to obey, forced to bend over and take whatever shit they gave me. But now? Now, I’d crafted a life where I never had to answer to anyone. Ever again.
I had food I’d painstakingly planted. Which she’s eaten.
I had a house I’d laboriously cleaned and claimed. Which she’s ransacked.
I had a valley I’d felt safe in. Which she’s infiltrated.
She’d ruined everything.
Over and over and fucking over again.
And now, somehow, she’d taken possession of my name?! What was next? My body? My soul? The very freedom I’d fought so damn hard to have?
“How did you learn it, huh?” I snapped. Did you trick me while I was sleeping? Did you twist my mind into spilling secrets that weren’t yours to know?”
“No!” She licked her lips again, a nervous twitch as true fear along with disgusting compassion colored her cheekbones. “It wasn’t like that!”
“Then tell me!” I barked, leaning into her, crushing her. “Tell me why you’re looking at me differently. Why you’re watching me with fucking pity instead of terror.”
“You are.” I grabbed her and shook her again, pleased when she groaned as her neck fought the motion. “You think we’re friends, Gem? Did you envision I’d wake after days of being unconscious and suddenly, what? Be cured? Be grateful?” I laughed with ice. “Before you came into my life, I hadn’t been seriously hurt in years. I had nothing to heal from. Nothing to fear. Yet after a week in your dazzling company, I already hurt more than any punishment they ever gave me.”