Within days of arriving, moving into my cubby in the tower and spending hours upon hours of being his shadow, I loved him. We were our family.
Nik and Damon.
I looked over at the tanks, seeing Volos and Kore II basking under their heat lamps. Standing up, I walked over and removed the lid, gingerly picking up Volos and helping him curl around my hand. He should be dead already. Kore passed years ago, but Volos was hanging on. Perhaps for his master.
He rested peacefully, not moving, and I ran my fingers down his scaly skin.
After the first meeting with Damon, I’d researched his snakes on the Internet at the library and found out Volos was a milk snake and Kore was a corn snake. Both completely harmless.
Although what Damon said was true. Any animal bites when it’s provoked. Their bites, though, weren’t venomous.
“Banks!” A pounding hit the door downstairs, and I recognized Lev’s voice.
I put Volos back, careful to be gentle, and replaced the lid. He’d held out this long, and I was worried he wouldn’t last, especially with Damon this close to coming home.
“Banks!” Lev called again, and I walked for the door and jogged down the stairs.
Opening up the door at the bottom, I saw Lev standing there, his eyes bloodshot and cheeks flushed, probably from drinking. It was late, and the guys were winding down.
“Marina’s husband is back with his bullshit.” He jerked his chin, indicating the direction of the kitchen.
“So?” I shot back. “Handle it.”
“Come on,” he whined. “A man can’t tell another man what to do with his own wife. You need to handle this.”
I arched a brow and stepped out of the stairwell, slamming the door behind me.
“You good-for-nothing coward,” I spat out, barreling around him and walking for the stairs.
Bunch of lazy sons of bitches. Goddammit.
I charge down the steps, feeling him right behind me as I swung around the bannister and headed straight for the kitchen, where we could almost always find Marina. Her fucking husband tended the grounds here, both of them living on the property, but once in a while he liked to show up and remind her who was really in charge of her.
Not Gabriel Torrance, not all the men on the staff here she served and spent more time with than him, and certainly not her.
He was a man without a castle and a serious chip on his shoulder about that fact.
I entered the kitchen, passing David and Ilia in the hall, standing close but not getting too close, as Marina’s quiet sobs broke the silence.
Bill Rutledge stood in front of her with his back to me, holding a belt in his hand as he faced his wife.
I didn’t know what provoked him this time, and I didn’t give a shit.
Glancing around him, I looked at Marina, her eyes flashing to me for a moment. Tears covered her cheeks, half of her blonde hair tied back but much of it had come loose, and her shirt and apron were mussed. Her face was red, but I didn’t see any blood.
She wasn’t usually here this late, but I could see a pot on the stove and the burner lit. My father probably ordered her back to make him something.
“Hi,” I said, breaking the silence.
Bill turned his head, scowling at me. “Out,” he ordered. “This isn’t your business.”
And then his eyes flashed behind me, indicating the guys trailing in behind me now.
I stepped forward, instantly smelling sweat on him. I held out my hand. “Give me the belt.”
He scoffed and shook his head, taking another swig of the beer in his hand.
He wasn’t going to make this easy.
And I nearly closed my eyes with the pleasure of anticipation. I could feel the swirling in my stomach, the heat flowing down my arms, the hard beat in my chest…
I liked this part. Cocking my head, I took a step closer. “She’s had enough. Give me the belt.”
He turned around, facing me, and I stared up into his blue eyes that were wrinkling at the corners from years of working in the sun, and his blond hair, wet with the sweat of exertion.
He narrowed his eyes on me, stepping up into my space. He swung the belt off to his side and got in my face.
I couldn’t hold in the little smile that escaped. Years ago, no one would dare touch me out of fear of dealing with Damon.
Now, every day, I fought to make sure no one challenged me out of fear of dealing with me.
“Do it,” I told him. “Hit me.”
And I turned and planted my palms on the table, leaning over just slightly. “Come on.”
Marina stopped sobbing, and not one of the men in the room spoke.
I turned my head over my shoulder, speaking to him. “You’re delaying Mr. Torrance’s dinner. I’ll take her place, so do it.”
I felt him shift behind me, and every muscle in my legs wanted to tremble. I breathed shallow, digging my nails into the wooden table as he moved behind me.
Come on! Come on. You can hurt me. You’re going to put me in my place, aren’t you?
“Do it,” I whispered, breathing harder and dropping my head back as I closed my eyes. “Do it, do it, do it, do it…Make me scream. Make me cry.” My skin crawled and every hair stood on end.
Every animal bites when it’s provoked. Let’s do this, you son of a bitch.
“Do it. Scare me. Come on! Make me scream. You can do it. I want it!”
I slammed my palm down on the table, and I heard Marina suck in a breath.
But everything remained silent. It was like no one was breathing.
I waited for the first lash—if he fucking dared—but nothing happened. Turning my eyes on him behind me, I found him just standing there, staring at me.
He’d backed up. He knew he wouldn’t be getting any tears or screams out of me.
But he didn’t want to lose face in front of the men, either, so he sniffled and shrugged, suddenly acting like this was all no big deal.
“It’s fine,” he replied, laughing at himself. “I just had two too many, I guess.”
Standing upright, I turned around and approached him. I took his beer and kept my eyes on him as I tossed it into the garbage.
He hesitated only a moment but took the cue to get his fucking belt back on.
“You have a problem with Mr. Torrance’s cook, you talk to me,” I told him. “You hurt her and she can’t work, then you’ll be dealing with him. If any of this is confusing, David will explain it on the drive back to your house.” And then I looked to the men, prompting them to get his ass out of here. “Guys?”
David stared at me, looking lost in thought for a moment, but then he blinked, coming to. He wrangled the guys and led the way out the back door. Bill didn’t even look at his wife as he grudgingly followed them.
I heard more sniffling and saw Marina out of the corner of my eye approach.
“Thank you, sweetheart,” she said, her voice trembling.
She reached out and touched my face, but I pulled away.
This wasn’t for her. It wasn’t, I told myself.
What she allowed to happen to her in their house was her problem. When her husband messed with the flow of this house, it became my problem. Nothing more.
“Gabriel’s waiting for his dinner,” I told her, walking out of the kitchen. “Fix your face.”