“No… It wasn’t like that.” His voice was hoarse, the words clumsy with his tongue bitten and swollen. She pressed on, ignoring him.
“When you’d completely won her trust, you’d break it off. Because you couldn’t play with her until that point, the only way to let her know what you’d done was to do it with just the right expression. A little smirk, an offhand attitude. I bet you practiced that look in the mirror for days. It had to be clear as a stop sign. In one blink, she’d understand that the past twelve months of her life, the vulnerabilities and love she’d offered you, had meant less than nothing. Making her feel like she was less than nothing.”
The moment was there, all around them. The night Lauren had told him she wanted more with him. Wanted it all. The transformation as his rejection registered.
Her disbelief, the incredible shock.
When Nathan looked at Lauren’s face, he saw what he hadn’t seen then in the glow of his triumph. A stricken desolation in her expression that made the beating he’d just taken look like a toe-stubbing. He had stabbed her through her soul.
No. That’s absurd, the fucking manipulation of this place. She was fine. I wanted…
“You didn’t know what you wanted by that time, Jonathan. Just like an addict, the getting became everything. The worse your soul felt, the more you craved to do it.
That’s why the next Mistress you chose turned out to be a psychopathic serial killer.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said hoarsely. He just wanted those images to go away. He’d seen it. Fine. Take it away.
“Shut up,” Dona said mildly. The cat twitched in her hand, making him flinch. If she struck him again, he was pretty sure she’d strip exposed muscle, leave grooves in his organs. “The soul can take only so much bullshit before it seeks annihilation, even if the rational mind isn’t aware that it’s being tugged into harm’s way. The soul is the catastrophe center. Too many people, too much strain on the environment, here comes a tornado or an earthquake, not only to reduce numbers, but to remind us there are consequences, things bigger than ourselves. If we create imbalance, it will be balanced.
The S&M Killer was your tornado, so you thought she destroyed your life. But it was Lauren that made you step into her path.”
The shadows took Lauren away, but the mirrors were moving, closing in on him like the inside of a funhouse. Dona was behind him again, increasing his apprehension.
“Is this Hell’s pathetic copycat version of Dickens?” He said it through clenched teeth. Fighting panic. He could hear his heart beating irregularly, responding to the stress of the pain even if it could not succumb to it. His fluids made him stick wetly to the faceless, nameless woman beneath him. He wanted her gone too. He wanted it all gone.
Dona chuckled, the sound grating on his nerves at the evidence that he could not shake her, even as his body responded traitorously to the sultry tones of her voice.
“Do you know why you hated Mac? So much that it clouded your judgment and landed you in prison?”
“Because he was a cop, and bullshit.”
She lifted a brow. “Because he got what you’ve always wanted.”
“I didn’t want Violet. But I could have taken her away from him if I wanted to do it.”
“Mac Nighthorse would have ripped your arms off if you’d so much as breathed on her. You know I’m not talking about Violet. Don’t fuck with me. Don’t fuck with yourself.”
The mirrors turned and now Dona was holding a bullwhip with the diameter of a python. No. Please… He swallowed, bit back the plea. The fact she was holding a new whip meant she’d be using it.
“What is it Mac had that you want? What is it that Lauren found after you mercifully left her life?”
He shook his head. A moment later his body arched, a scream tearing the lining from his throat as the bullwhip landed a full stripe down his back that made his upper body feel as if it had been seared by acid. His muscles constricted against the pain so forcefully he thought he felt his ribs crack under the strain. His head snapped down, inadvertently striking the temple of his bound companion. She made a sound of pain.
“Trust. Trust in a Mistress.” Dona answered the question. “Nirvana with a Mistress.
The ability to let go and believe she’ll take care of you. The state where bringing her pleasure becomes the most important thing in your life.” Four more lashes, one for each point. He’d never thought there could be such a level of pain. The whip snagged the strips of skin that remained, ripping them loose.
More blood ran down his sides, making him itch. The chamber echoed his cries, overlapping, bouncing back on him, making his head scream with agony.
“You thought Mac could see that weakness in you, the fact you didn’t have what it took to get there with a woman.” Her voice penetrated all of it. “When we’re insecure, we make up stories of what people see when they look at us. Funhouse mirrors again, mocking us so that we project the images of others over the image of ourselves. But it always comes back to you, because that’s the only thing any of us control in this life.
You made the choices that put you here.”
With the bones of his wrists grinding against the stone hold of the gargoyles, he couldn’t control the spasmodic convulsions of his upper body as he waited for the next blow to come. He could barely open his eyes, clogged with tears and perspiration running off his brow. He was as cold as he imagined death felt, and would have welcomed it if that was what it heralded.
Two minutes of silence passed, punctuated only by his rattling breath and the woman’s frightened noises beneath him. Saliva from his clenched teeth had dampened her hair.
Lifting his lashes, he looked for Dona in the mirrors. He blinked, trying to wet his parched lips with his abused tongue. Trying to focus, because he wasn’t sure if what he was seeing was real.
The mirrors showed an image from the past, a few moments ago. Dona whipping him. She was crying, a sob breaking from her lips at his every scream.
Then it was gone as if it had never been and those shadows were moving again.
Was the quick glimpse reality or illusion? It didn’t matter. Her tears for him caused a different kind of anguish, one that striped him from the inside, lashed his vital organs in truth. Breaking him down in a way even the extremes of physical pain could not.
As she circled the tablet now, he didn’t see any evidence of her distress on her face, but he knew now that reality here changed every moment. He stiffened as she touched his back, but she was touching smooth skin, skin that no longer felt the pain, though the experience was indelibly printed on his mind. His limbs were still trembling from the lingering effects. The tears, discharge from his nose and saliva from the corners of his mouth remaining from the torture made him avoid focusing on his own image.
Dona bent before him, her hair tumbling over her shoulders. He was ashamed for her to see him like this. When he tried to duck his head, she merely caught his chin, lifted it and began to wipe him clean with a soft handkerchief.
“Vain man. Always so vain. Be still.”
He swallowed, his eyes falling shut. He’d survived her lash, but he didn’t think he could survive her tenderness. He was going to break into a million pieces, just like a mirror, cursing himself seven years times forever. Or perhaps that deed was already well and done.
When she dabbed at his eyes, her voice was soft but merciless as the lash. “Mistress Lauren would have loved you, kept you, but you couldn’t stand that. You had to use her, make her fall in love with you. You had to tell her in every way she’d been a fool, that you’d played with her mind from the first. She’s one of the mirrors. Look into her eyes and see yourself. I wonder what you would say to her if you could see her now, at this very moment?”
He was in a park, standing at the entrance to a small private glade where a woman sat on a picnic blanket. Her lover was stretched out there as she pushed up his T-shirt, ran an ice cube slowly down his flat, hard stomach, traced the curve of his navel as he trembled. His lean arms, marked with Celtic-styled tattoos, were curved behind his head, the self-restraint at her behest, Nathan was sure. When the woman turned her head, she saw Nathan.
It was Lauren. Her blue eyes freezing, she stood, the ice dropping from her fingers.
Her lover rose beside her, a man with gray intent eyes that shifted between the two of them, taking the situation in at a glance. His expression told Nathan that he knew his history with his Mistress. He underscored that by stepping up to her side. No, even somewhat in front of her, an unmistakably protective motion.
He had tried to love Lauren. In the end, it was safer to believe she was like all the others. Looking at her now, he saw the inner and outer beauty that had always been there. The pure strength of the love she’d given to this man next to her, binding him to her. The face of her lover reciprocated that devotion in spades. He wouldn’t hurt her like Nathan had.
“I never deserved you,” he said hoarsely. “I betrayed you, and all you ever offered me was love. I’m sorry.”
He wasn’t even sure where the words came from. It was as if the pain Dona had been inflicting on him since he’d come into her care had opened a well inside him that was filled with simple truth. All it took was dipping a bucket into it to offer it to himself. To Lauren.
Dona’s whip snaked through the air, struck. The park, Lauren and her lover exploded in a shower of glass, the mirror shattering outward. He would have ducked his head, but in the air the shards became silver confetti, glittering as they settled on the floor, on Dona’s hair, across the ample tops of her breasts.
In the shards still floating through the air he saw the image of the corpulent woman again. Such a pretty little boy…
He closed his eyes. As he did, he became cognizant of the woman beneath him, still trembling. He felt an odd urge to stroke her hair, soothe her. Almost as he had the thought, his hand was free, so he did it tentatively, though the rest of his body remained bound so that all he could do was stroke her hair with the one hand. Moving to the side of her face, he followed the tracks of the tears coming from beneath the blindfold. When he touched her lips stretched around the ball gag, they quivered, but she didn’t make any other movement.