Broken Discipline: A Dark Assassin Romance Sample Chapters

 CHAPTER 1

Finn

The walls flickered with shadows like the inside of a furnace. At the far end of the room, a man dressed in white cranked a lever, and a giant wheel spun on its side. A woman was chained to the spokes. Her screams filled the air like they could break every shard of glass. Still, the members in black didn’t stop. They took turns with her. Knives. Mallets. Nail guns. Fingers. My father stood beside me in a red suit, a torch in a sea of charcoal and ash. This was the Masquerade, put on by a secret society where initiates were supposed to sacrifice someone they loved in order to obtain membership. The only person I truly had left was my father.

I was doing this to get inside. Membership was the only way to gain access to their private community. But I still had the urge to find a way out. 

“You’ve already completed the first two initiation tasks,” my father said, checking off an imaginary list in the air. He was right; I had killed an enemy for the secret society and provided my own services to the members. The sacrifice was my last barrier. “This is it, son. Do or die.”

I took a deep breath, my chest weighted with dread. Do or fucking die. A tingling sensation rippled through me. Emotion was never supposed to impede your next step. You had to be in control. Restrained. Disciplined. Everything rode on your ability to stay in power. 

But this was so fucked up.

My father patted my shoulder, his red jacket sleeve contrasting against my white suit. I was an initiate, which meant I wore white. The members wore black. Every initiate and member wore masks, but my father, since he was a sacrifice, was not permitted that luxury. 

A cough shattered through my father’s body, his whole body twisting into a ball. The members and the initiate at the wheel turned toward us, gazing past the woman in pain. My father signaled that he was okay, and the men returned to their torture.

I enjoyed torture, especially when it came to women. But with my father, knowing that he would die by the end of the night? It made my head spin. My stomach churned. My fingers twitch with anxiety.

This is what it meant to do anything for what you wanted.

“I stopped taking my medication,” my father said in a low voice. Anger grew inside me, my hands curling into fists. I narrowed my eyes, infuriated that he would choose that fate. As if the guarantee of the Masquerade wasn’t enough. But his eyes were glossy, implying that he preferred this Masquerade to anything the disease would do to his body. “Tonight or in the next few weeks. It’s my choice, Finn.” 

“It’s bullshit,” I muttered.

“They won’t have another Masquerade for a few months. And by then, I’ll be dead,” he said, his voice softening. “You need to do this now.”

My father’s hand fell from my shoulder. His chest dipped into itself, a shadow of the strong man who had raised me. A twinge of sorrow haunted his demeanor, as if he was recalling what he had lost. He hadn’t joined the secret society himself. His wife—my mother—had accepted an arranged marriage to a member of this same secret society right after I was born. My father had powerful enemies back then; she did it, hoping she could gain protection for the two of us. She didn’t live long after that. 

That was decades ago now. It was up to me to control the future of our legacy. I motioned around the room. The members in black jeering. The man in white, risking his wife’s life and mental well-being for membership in a secret society that could give him immense power.

“I don’t trust them,” I said.

“You don’t have to,” my father said. “You just have to claim what’s yours.”

My chest heated at those words. I had lost everything through my own mistakes, and this? This was another nail in the coffin.

But if I gained membership, I could be closer to the community. It was better than nothing. 

But I still wasn’t sure that killing my father was worth that proximity. My heart pounded, my throat dry. 

“They’ll kill you,” I said. 

“And that’s the point,” my father said, smacking me on the back. He gritted his teeth, his eyes stewing with intensity. “Get yourself together, Finn. Give me the decency of a good exit. Don’t waste it on this disease.”

“Carter. You’re up next,” one member shouted.

The man in white removed the chains from his sacrifice’s limbs. With the help of a member, they eased her off of the wheel until she was able to hold the man in white’s neck. A ruby and diamond necklace in the shape of a daisy dripped between her collarbones. I fingered the matching necklace in my pocket. 

“Finn Carter?” one member asked. I glanced at my father, my throat tightening. My father nodded slowly like he knew that this was the last way he could guide me. 

“Don’t think. Don’t feel. Just do,” he said calmly. He reached out for me. “You can do this.”

Callouses bridged his palm like strong tree roots gripping the earth. He was offering his hand, knowing that he was about to die. Like none of this mattered. 

I shook his hand, my throat scratchy and full. He patted the back of my arm, then removed his jacket and began unbuttoning his shirt. Suddenly, my jacket was like a snake coiling around me. I removed mine too. Scars tattered my father’s body like flames licking a log, and without his clothes, he was small compared to the rest of the men. My chest weighed down, hating that this was how he would appear in his last moments. Open. Weak. Vulnerable. Not like the man who had raised me.

I handed him the ruby and diamond necklace. He bound it around his neck. 

“We’re ready,” I said to the members.

I stepped forward, but my mind wasn’t connected with my body. Every movement felt incomplete. My vision shifted into strobes of light: My father climbing onto the wheel. My hands binding his ankles in thick chains. My father’s eyes peeled wide. His pupils as small as pinpoints, and glued to me. 

A member gestured to me, showing me how to rotate the wheel by a lever on the wall. I took my place at the lever, my heart pounding in my ears, my face drenched in sweat. I spun the contraption, my father a spinning target for the members to do their worst. A knife stabbed in his upper thigh. The back of a pistol mashed his face. A cane smacked down on his balls before being jabbed inside of his ass. A mallet crashed into the stab wound on his thigh, letting blood splatter around the room, streaking my white shirt. My father’s mouth stretched in a scream, but it was silent in my mind, like a muted television. Another member chased him around the wheel, using a saw to pick off his fingers, letting each one drop to the floor. Blood streamed down my father’s body like drips of wax on a candlestick. The members laughed. None of the sacrifices were people to the members; they were entertainment. My father kept his eyes on me as much as he could, still proud and strong in his final moments. But as another knife entered his stomach, his chin dipped, his shoulders shaking, his gaze leaving me. His mouth opened in a blood-curdling scream, but in my mind, everything was silent. 

And I couldn’t take it anymore.

I stopped the wheel. The members’ mouths moved, but I didn’t hear them. I grabbed my gun from the holster, cocking it as I stepped closer to the wheel. My father’s eyes flicked toward me, meeting my gaze once again. He nodded at me, telling me to do it.

My face was wet, my throat dry. I aimed at his forehead, my fingers gripped in terror. I had killed before, and I would kill again. But at that moment, holding a gun to my own father’s head? A burning sensation rolled through me like I was being torn apart from the inside. He had raised me like a father should raise their children. And I was repaying him with this.

But I wasn’t going to let him suffer any longer.

His gray eyes held me as his voice cracked: “I am so proud of you, son.”

I pulled the trigger, the bullet riding through his skull. The bloody circle adorned his forehead like the center jewel of a crown. I blinked my eyes, unable to accept that it was real. 

Everything inside of me was weak.

A man in black, one of the official members, put his hand on my shoulder, his eyes gleaming through his simple black mask. 

“Congratulations,” the member said. “And welcome to the Marked Blooms Syndicate.”

I pushed him away, hurling myself out of the room. Snot dripped out of my nose. I wiped my face on the back of my hand, but the material of the mask clung to my face, trapping me. I needed fresh air. I needed anything to get this warped sensation inside of me to stop. I hated it. Hated myself. Hated my father for being altruistic. Why couldn’t he be selfish? Why couldn’t we find someone else, capture them, and force them to pretend to be my sacrifice? Why wasn’t there another way? 

They’ll know, he had warned me. If we find a fake sacrifice, they’ll know. And then you’ll lose your chance to join their secret society forever. You must do this.

Streaks of cold air conditioning brushed against my face, chilling my damp skin. I stopped, my eyes falling to my button-up shirt. Blood painted the white fabric in pops of red. It constricted around me, on the verge of asphyxiation. I ripped it off, letting the buttons fly everywhere. I raced down the hallway, trying to find the exit, but it was like a labyrinth of torture. Screams, moans, and sadistic laughter filled the air. My head spun. 

A woman’s voice broke through it all: “I was running away?”

Everything inside of me stilled at her voice. A purple room was to my left with two men in black; they were both members, then. 

And yet, there was still a woman on her knees with her wrists bound behind her back. Dark brown hair lay in tangles on her shoulders. Her pale skin glowed under the violet light. Her posture was small and subdued, but her eyes—sepia, like a photograph from the past—were filled with purpose. Like she knew she had to endure this.

I could relate to that.

My bulge twitched, aroused at the sight of her. I needed to remind myself of what this was for. Control. Restraint. Discipline.

And I could have that over her.

A man with gray hair bent down, stroking her cheek like a dog.

“Yes, you were running away. But I don’t understand why, darling. You did so well,” the gray-haired man said. “As a wife should do for her husband. You need to make me proud. Take it like a good wife.”

I cleared my throat. Both men turned toward me. Gold tendrils swirled around the eyes-holes of the white-haired man’s black mask. The gray-haired husband wore a simpler, black mask, but his teeth gleamed in the light.

“May we help you?” the husband asked.

“I want her,” I said.

The husband forced a smile. “Perhaps the next Masquerade,” he said. “My wife has endured quite enough for me tonight.”

I motioned the two members forward. “I can pay.”

“Stay here,” the husband said to his wife.

The two men joined me in the hallway. 

“You’re Finn Carter,” the gray-haired husband said. “With Carter Care, right? I caught a glimpse of your sacrifice. Excellent work on the wheel.”

The white-haired man stuck out his hand. “Well done. We’re pleased to have you in the Syndicate.”

I shook his hand, then blinked at the husband. “How much do you want for her?” I asked, nodding toward the bound wife. “I want an hour.”

“I’ll let you two handle this,” the white-haired man said to the husband. He marched away, leaving the two of us alone. 

“Oh,” the husband said. “She is charming, isn’t she? The first one I’ve had in a while that I actually enjoy.” He sighed deeply. “But I’m afraid she’s had all she can for one night. My cousin—” he glanced at the white-haired man walking away, “—as you can see, has already used her up for the night. I’m not sure how much more her body can take. I don’t want her to die just yet, you know.”

Those words curled inside of me like claws tearing at the flesh of my organs. He was already a member; he didn’t need to sacrifice his wife for membership, and yet he pretended to be protective of her.

“Carter Care’s services for one year,” I said. “Unlimited contracts. Clean up and customization too.”

The husband fell silent. The wife wavered to the side, swaying like she was dizzy. Restraints and weapons were displayed on a long metal table to the side of her, but the only item that stood out was the wooden club, lying across the surface at an angle. The white-haired cousin must have used it on her. She may have been suffering from a concussion.

I recognized the cousin; he was a board member, making him extremely high up in the Marked Blooms Syndicate. It wasn’t impossible to kill a man like that. But it was risky. 

“I’ll go easy on her,” I said. 

The husband tilted his head. “One year?” he asked.

“One year.”

He held out his hand. “Pleasure doing business with you, Carter. She’s yours.”

I shook his hand, then stepped past him. My boots were silent on the cement as I entered the room. The wife kept her eyes on the ground. Dress shoes clicked against the pavement, following me inside.

Alone,” I said to the husband.

He opened his mouth to argue, but when he saw my stern jaw, he nodded quickly. 

“I enjoy the show, you know, but that’s my mistake. You’re right. Your privacy is important.”

He stepped out, and I closed the door, clicking it into place. The wife’s eyes peeked up, glued to my white steel-toed boots. Her gaze inched up my white pants, to the tattoo on my hairy chest. A bruise marked her cheek, like the bud of a flower swelling into bloom. Her puffy lips were caked with blood. Our eyes met, and a flash of recognition crossed her face. 

“Your eyes,” she said. “They’re so gray.”

I clenched my jaw. I needed colored contacts to distract others from that part of me. My job relied on me blending in, and obviously, even in a concussed state, the woman still latched onto my eyes. She leaned to the side, her eyes falling to the tattoo on my chest. 

“Is that a griffin?” she asked.

CHAPTER 2

Ramona

The harsh black lines stretched over the man’s chest, vibrant color filling in the tattooed creature: half bird, half lion. The wings spread across his hard pectorals, those veiny, clawed feet sharp and antagonizing. But the longer I stared at it, the stranger it became. It wasn’t the traditional eagle like you’d expect with a griffin. It had a sharp beak, venomous and deadly in its own right, but softer too. Like a lark. The man shifted his weight, his shadow hovering like a giant umbrella shielding me from the purple light. 

“Is it a griffin?” I asked again. “You know. That mythical creature. Half bird. Half lion. It symbolizes strength and leadership.”

I was rambling, but my head throbbed, and the more I focused on him, the less it hurt. One night of pain meant that my kids were provided for, and it seemed like such a small price for what my husband could give them. So I fixated on the man’s thick beard. His stern jaw. Our eyes met, and his gray eyes seared like he could destroy everything in his path, including me.

I lowered my eyes. Red dots splattered the edges of his white boots, and the coppery scent of blood and masculine sweat filtered through the air, mixed with a hint of earth. Like seeds roasting in an oven. Like dirt freshly shoveled over a grave. 

His hand, muscular and strong, ran over the handle of the wooden club like he was going to pick it up and use it like a baseball bat, just like my husband’s cousin had.

“He already did that,” I quickly shouted. “You should choose something else. If you want a big reaction. Something new.”

Please don’t use it, I pleaded internally. I couldn’t take another hit of that thing.

“Why are you submitting to this?” the man asked.

His voice was deep and hoarse. Emotion simmered under the surface, like he was burying it inside of a protective barrier. I lifted my shoulders, my wrists still bound in rope behind my back.

“I don’t have a choice,” I said.

He kneeled down beside me, heat coming off of his body, his musky, roasted scent enveloping me. I closed my eyes, bracing myself for the worst, but his hands touched my rope bindings, his fingertips skimming my skin and sending electric surges through me. But why? I hadn’t reacted like this with my husband’s cousin. So why him?

Maybe my body was numb. Maybe I was trying to survive by giving into it all. Letting this strange man’s presence wash over me. 

The ropes fell from my wrists, dropping to the ground. The man stood up, his presence massive as he towered over me. He was muscular, bulky and intimidating in a militaristic way, like a man who knew how important it was to be fit and aggressive. Wavy black hair topped his head, the sides neatly tapered and close to his skull. His thick bottom lip puffed out of his groomed beard. But those bright gray eyes held me, piercing my soul, bringing me back to another time. Another life. When my choices weren’t as bad as I thought they were. When things were simple. And for a moment, looking into his eyes, it felt like they were still simple.

His jaw ticked, the veins and tendons in his face taut. Fury and lust warred in his expression. His tongue flicked across his bottom lip. His chest visibly tightened, his pectorals flexing the griffin, the inked creature ready to fight. 

This strange man could rip me in half if he wanted. Part of me was drawn to that, though I didn’t understand why. 

My husband’s cousin had already smashed my face with the club, then penetrated me with the handle. I covered my stomach, trying to brace myself for what the man was about to do. Would it be worse than before? 

“The door is right there,” he said. 

Nervous heat coursed through me. I had tried to run away before when my husband and his cousin were still here, but now it seemed like a trap. The man was giving me a choice, showing me that I did have power. I could stand up. Twist the knob. Leave the room. It almost seemed like he was giving me safety, somehow, by seeing me as someone with agency. Bruce, my husband, so rarely gave me that respect. 

Was it a trap? Did he want to see me run?

Instead, I froze in place, like a deer in headlights waiting to be slaughtered by an oncoming semi-truck. But instinct compelled me: this man wasn’t going to kill me. Not yet. 

“Hands behind your back,” he said.

Instantly, I did as I was told, angry with myself for not resisting. But if I disobeyed, my husband might take a privilege away from the twins, and I couldn’t stand that. 

But maybe it was for another reason now. Maybe I felt safe with this man. Protected somehow.

He didn’t see a sacrifice; he saw me. 

He crouched down in front of me, examining my stomach. Instinctively, I covered myself again. Ripples of light pink stretch marks crisscrossed my stomach like the loose weave of a basket. He pulled my hands away from my stomach, forcing me to expose myself.

“Where are your children?” he asked. 

I let out a breath. It must have been obvious what the pink scars were from the pregnancy.

“With the nanny,” I mumbled.

“Does the nanny raise them?”

No. She only works when Bruce needs me to attend an event with him like this,” I explained, my tone more defensive than I expected. But even marrying a billionaire, I had never intended to let a nanny raise my children. I had given up so much for their futures, but I was never going to let that go too. Her position was temporary, and I insisted on that. 

The man touched the scar on my upper arm and a shock wave tore through me, my hands dropping to my sides, my fists curled.

“And that?” he asked. 

“Curling iron,” I lied. It was from my husband’s failed attempt at getting himself off. But I didn’t want this stranger’s pity. I didn’t even know him. 

“Hands behind your back,” he repeated. My skin flushed as I quickly fixed myself. But why did I care whether or not I followed his instructions? It didn’t make any sense, and yet my obedience was instinctual in a way I hadn’t felt with my husband or his cousin. Like I wanted to surrender to him. “If you can’t follow a simple order, I’ll have to punish you until you remember. Now, on your feet.”

I scrambled to a standing position. He angled his head to the side, staring between my legs. He cupped me there, his palm warm.

“Sensitive, Ramona?” he asked.

“How do you know my name?”

“I know a lot about you. But these men?” He motioned back toward the door. “They don’t understand you, but I do. You like being a good girl. You like obeying a powerful man like me. You like being an empty-headed little toy, ready for me to use.”

Shivers rolled down my spine, heat pooling between my legs.

I started, “Sir—”

“Finn,” he corrected. 

“Finn,” I said, staring into those deep, cloud-gray eyes. His burning gaze roved over me, taking me in, calling me back to a dream. But my thoughts fogged. I tucked a lock of hair behind my ear. I stammered out, “Do I know you, Finn?”

His eyes darted to my hand and I realized what I had done. It was a small mistake, a simple one at that, but he glared at me, his eyes full of dangerous ice. He flipped me around, bending me over the table, forcing me to behold all of those weapons and restraints. Cuffs. Knives. A stun gun. Needles. A medical stapler. My stomach flipped, anxiety rising like bile in my throat.

Would he be like my husband’s cousin and whack me with a wooden club until I was unconscious? 

Somehow, I knew he wasn’t like that. He was still dangerous and possessive, but he was different too. Protective, maybe. And I was desperate for that comfort.

“You can’t follow simple rules, can you?” Finn growled into my ear. “Tell me. Did you do that on purpose? Do you want me to hurt you?”

He let go of me and I tripped forward, catching myself on the table. I spun around to face him. Satisfaction rushed through Finn’s expression, dripping slowly to his lips. Those gray eyes held me as if soon, everything would click together. The back of his knuckles stroked the side of my cheek, my skin tender and raw. Without thinking, I nuzzled into his hand, but then I flicked my eyes down. I was so embarrassed. Who seeks comfort from a stranger?

A man who had paid my husband for me.

“Look at me,” he demanded, anger seeping into his tone. My stomach twisted, but I looked up, meeting his iron-filled eyes. His gaze flickered over the bruise on my cheek, the one my husband’s cousin had given me. “A mark like this shouldn’t be on your face,” Finn said. “Save it for a better area. What a waste.”

My stomach flickered with heat. His eyes drank me in, a smirk building on his lips like he could hear my thoughts. He grabbed the wooden club off of the table, and then pinned me against the table, his legs on each side of mine. He put the club between us. It shined with liquid in the purple light. 

“Is that your come?” he asked.

My cheeks flamed. “I didn’t come.”

He bared his teeth. “Lick it up,” he demanded, his voice primal and raw.

Energy rushed through my body. Finn held the club horizontal, rubbing it against my face, the smooth wood sliding across my skin like a massaging tool. I flattened my tongue against it, tasting my own sour flavor. He pressed his hips into me, his bulge so hard, it was almost like it was threatening me. My hips bucked forward, my fingers itching to grope his length until it grew in my palm, but I held back. I didn’t have to pleasure him unless he made me.

But I wanted to do it. Needed to do anything to get me away from the reality of this Masquerade for one second.

The wooden club shined with my saliva, my cheeks traced with come. Finn stepped back, giving me some space. I rested against the table.

“Turn around. Bend over,” he said.

I did as I was told; the metal table dug into my hips, and I pressed each palm onto an open space on the surface. He cupped my hips, then tapped the club on my bottom. I glanced over my shoulder. His focus was fixed on me, but it was like he was vacant. Like someone else had taken over his mind. His pants were damp with my arousal and little drops of blood. Whose blood was on his clothing? Had he killed someone before buying me?

“Such a decadent little treat,” he said, licking his lips. “It’s one of my favorite positions. Bent over. Your slit wet and ready for me to ram inside of you. And if you arch your back enough—” he pressed on my lower back, making me rest against the table, then lightly tapped my ass with the club until my cheeks perked up, on display for him. “It helps with punishment.”

“Punishment?” I whispered.

A blunt thud of pain smacked across my ass, the club hitting my slit, making me yelp as I jumped up. It stung with a low ache, but more than that, it surprised me. Before our eyes could meet, Finn did it again and my body danced along, trying to endure it. Wanting to endure it.

“The door is a few steps away,” he said in a low voice.

“Do you think I’m stupid?” I snapped. “I know where it is.”

“Why do you submit, Ramona?” he said, his voice full of power. 

“Because I have to,” I repeated. I didn’t owe him an explanation about why I had married Bruce.

“Why do you submit to me?” he clarified, his tone earnest. I turned over my shoulder; his gaze was glossy, completely transfixed by me. There was power in that, a power that I had over him. This wasn’t about my pain. This was about my reaction. Finn wanted to see me cry and sweat and yelp as much as he wanted to hear me moan.

He stepped closer, guiding my hips so that I was once again bent over the table. He licked my ear, the tickling touch forming goosebumps on my neck. He pressed the club between my thighs, letting my bare skin ride against the wood. His body smashed into me, full of weight, like a physical shield protecting me against the world. Like I didn’t belong to an old, rich billionaire anymore. Like the Marked Blooms Syndicate didn’t own my life through a binding marriage contract. Like this was a dream.

And for a moment, it was.

“Make yourself come,” he growled in my ear, pressing the club snug against me. “All I want—all I need right now, to erase my memories of tonight, is to see you writhe like a filthy little toy on this club. Be a good girl. Be my good girl, Ramona. And come for me.”

I swallowed a breath, my insides coming undone at those words. It was degrading and somehow appealing as hell, because Finn wanted me to degrade myself for his pleasure. I closed my eyes, grinding against the wood, the skin between my legs sensitive from the blows of his punishing strikes, making every little ripple of friction feel like a million fingertips. I moaned and his length twitched against my back, stabbing into me. He wrapped a hand around my throat while the club covered my sensitive nerve endings. I humped the wood as if I hadn’t been beaten with it. As if I hadn’t let a man violate me with the handle while my husband watched. 

As if all I had was Finn. 

Finn’s thumb rounded over that tender bead of nerves, sending electricity through my limbs. I twitched uncontrollably, and he pressed into me harder. 

“That’s it,” he growled. “Come for me.”

Those words sent me over the edge. Pleasure burst through me, my body vibrating against the club, changing that club from a nightmarish weapon into a humiliating, and sensual toy. My body pulsed, every ounce of energy exploding through me, and Finn dropped the club and held me tight, like he was afraid of letting me go. 

Once I was steady, he made sure I could stand on my feet. I leaned against the table for extra support. He adjusted his pants, then found a folded robe in a hidden drawer to the side of the room. He was already done with me, then. 

Why was I so disappointed?

“You don’t want me to…” I trailed off. His eyes finally met mine, and every expression dropped from his face. He was cold, like his heart no longer existed.

“We’re not finished,” he said calmly. Those words vibrated through me, but I could only nod. I didn’t want to be done with him, but right then, neither of us had a choice.

He opened the door, and my husband burst through the doorway as he zipped up his pants. Finn bowed his head curtly at my husband, then disappeared down the hallway. My husband rifled his hand through his gray hair, then pulled me closer to him. The acid in my stomach curdled.

“A robe?” Bruce, my husband, asked, eyeing the garment in my hands. “He’s right. The cold won’t be good for your head. Did you have fun, darling?” 

“I—” 

“Let’s go,” he said, tilting his head toward the door. “That was a waste of time. I thought I’d at least get to hear you scream. But alas, each member has his own ideas of what constitutes as ‘fun.’” He eyed my robe. “Hurry up, now. We haven’t got all night.”

I quickly fumbled into the robe, tying it around me. Bruce muttered to himself, his words directed at everyone and anyone, rather than to me. I zoned out, but one phrase caught my attention: “It could have gotten you off the hook for next time.”

“Next time?” I asked.

He sneered. “Behave yourself.” 

As humiliating as it was, even with an arrogant husband like Bruce, a life with him was still better than what I could have had with my children back in my hometown. Being a subservient wife was worth it as long as I still had my mind. 

“Next time, sir?” I corrected.

“They have these Masquerades every quarter to help the members unwind. I like to pay my respects to the Marked Blooms Syndicate as much as I can, though. And as you know, it helps me to get off, too.” He grinned, showing off his pearly white teeth. The attendants opened the double doors for us, letting us out into the cold night. The robe was thin against my skin, but at least it was something. I had expected Bruce to make me walk out naked, but Finn had changed that. 

“So we’ll be here again soon, sir?” I asked.

“At least once a year. Perhaps twice, depending on my mood.”

Chills crept over my bare calves. At first, it was hard to grasp that the same secret society that had rescued me from my old life was the same secret society that held these sadistic, quarterly Masquerades. But in the end, it fit. It wasn’t about prestige; it was about power.

Bruce’s driver popped out of the front of the town car and went around to open our door. Bruce slid inside first, and I followed, the satin fabric of the robe sliding against the leather seats. Bruce’s cologne filled the back compartment with a heady, musky scent. He reached into the vehicle’s hidden side compartment, pulling out a glass and a bottle of whiskey. 

“You know, none of my other wives could handle it for that long,” he said, pouring two fingers of liquor. “But you show promise, darling. Even when you tried to run away, you did so well tonight. You handled Upchurch and Carter.”

“Carter, sir?” I asked.

“Finn Carter. The second man you entertained. By yourself too.”

Finn Carter. I would have to remember that name. His gray eyes filled my mind like a fading memory, the ghost of his knuckles on my cheek making me shiver. I touched my cheek, pressing my fingers into the tender skin, then flinched. I had forgotten about the bruise Bruce’s cousin had given me. Would it cause permanent damage?

Bruce saw my concern and waved it off. 

“A minor concussion,” he said. He reached into the hidden compartment again and retrieved a bottle of water, handing it to me, as if to say, See? I do care. “You can survive minor concussions. The human brain works wonders, my dear.”

Except between pregnancy, motherhood, and ‘minor’ concussions, my memory was foggy at best. 

“I can’t say how grateful I am that Upchurch found you, darling,” he said, putting an arm around my back. I silently thanked Finn for unknowingly protecting me from my husband’s touch. “My cousin—Upchurch—he likes you, you know. We’re still working on the details, and to be quite honest, I don’t know if we’ll ever come to an agreement that works for both of us. But he picked you out for me, and one day, when I’m gone, he wants to take care of my business, the twins, and you.” He laughed, holding his chest. “It’ll be good to see everything go into the family, you know. Especially a board member.”

“Board member, sir?” I asked.

“Yes. Upchurch is a board member of the Marked Blooms Syndicate.”

Those words meant nothing to me. The Marked Blooms Syndicate had contacted me a year and a half ago, offering me the arranged marriage with Bruce, but I still didn’t know anything about the secret society. 

Feeling bold—after all, Bruce was pleased with my performance at the Masquerade—I leaned forward, readying myself to ask a bolder question. 

“What is the Marked Blooms Syndicate, sir?” I asked. 

“It’s a secret society,” he said, shoving a dismissive hand in my direction. “Think of it as a network for people like me. We pay our dues, provide our services to other members, use other members’ services, and reap the benefits.”

In theory, it made sense. Maybe it was like a fraternity or a sorority, where networking possibilities carried on long after the college years. But in practice, I didn’t understand why it was important. My husband was wealthy beyond imagination, as he owned one of the biggest brokerage firms in the nation. He didn’t need a secret society to help him. He must have been in it for something else.

My mind wandered to those icy gray eyes. Why would Finn need a secret society?

“Is Finn a member of the Marked Blooms Syndicate too, sir?” I asked.

My husband’s eyes curiously glossed over my body.

“You like him?” he asked. 

I lifted my shoulders slightly, lowering my eyes. Answering honestly wasn’t a real option; Bruce had told me that he liked sharing, but after letting his cousin have me, I knew Bruce liked sharing my pain, not my pleasure. I didn’t want him to ruin that with Finn.

“No, sir,” I lied. 

He cleared his throat, then turned back to the front of the car, facing the tinted partition. 

“Well, yes, darling. Finn is officially a member. As of tonight,” he said. He swallowed the rest of his whiskey, then glanced out the dark window to his side. “The man sacrificed his father for his membership tonight. Can you imagine that? The poor bastard was dying anyway, but it still hurts to kill your own, you know? It’s why I can’t participate myself anymore. It’s always better when I can watch someone else do it. It’s hard on me, darling. Very hard.”

My jaw hung open. Hard on him? I wanted to laugh. Bruce was fit for an older man, but age made his double chin hang down like a tandem hammock. His gray hair was textured with thin streaks of black, color that had only shown up a few nights ago as if he had gotten his hair dyed specifically to look younger and impress the other members at the Masquerade. But his words haunted me. If Finn had killed his father for membership in the Marked Blooms Syndicate, what was his reasoning for wanting membership so badly? 

But it explained Finn’s vacant stare. He had been attentive at times and lost at others. Like his mind kept flipping between me and his father. 

We had both been distractions for each other, then.

“How does a person become a member, sir?” I asked.

“Well,” Bruce paused, thumbing his thin lips, then crossed his arms over his chest. “After a series of interviews with the board members, like Upchurch, you’re given three initiation tests. One, you must provide your own unique services. Two, you must take care of an enemy of the Marked Blooms Syndicate. And three, you must sacrifice someone you love, like Finn did with his father.”

I raised a brow, meeting Bruce’s eyes for once. His black pupils stared into me, daring me to defy him, to see what he could do. His soul was like a dark, lifeless cavern. 

“Sacrifice someone you love, sir?” I asked.

“Sacrifice sounds so violent. But the truth is that the sacrifices don’t always die,” he explained, “But male sacrifices usually do, especially if we need to test the potential member’s loyalty. Women, on the other hand, we can use more repeatedly. There are a few members that enjoy using men, but they tend to bring their own. They’re open to sharing, but never to sacrificing.”

I puzzled over it in my head. Finn had sacrificed his father. Had Bruce sacrificed me?

“Did you officially become a member tonight, sir?” I asked.

Bruce’s laugh boomed through the car. 

“I’ve been a member for several decades now,” he said. He squeezed my waist, then pulled his hands back into his lap. “I enjoy the festivities.” He pointed at the burns on my arm. “I always try to do it myself at first, but it seems I can’t get it up unless I’ve got someone else doing it for me these days.”

My stomach tingled with nerves because I knew what that meant. I was going to have to go through these Masquerades once or twice a year for the rest of our marriage because Bruce got off on watching me get tortured. If I wanted to make sure the twins got everything they deserved, then I needed to learn how to survive these nights.

He said it was only one or two nights a year. I could do that. Then the twins would never wonder where their next meal was coming from. They would never wonder why Santa never visited their house. They would never wonder why their mother kept leaving for longer, and longer periods of time. Or why their mother pretended everything was perfect, claiming she loved them, before she disappeared again. The twins would have everything they needed, and I would be there every step of the way.

All it took was a few nights of survival each year. 

 The town car rumbled over the cobble-stone driveway to Bruce’s Tuscan-style mansion. Sloping roofs with terracotta tiles glowed under the exterior lights. The arched doorways loomed over the walkways, like gates leading to hell.

But it was only hell for me. To the twins, it was home. 

“Will there always be two people each Masquerade, sir?” I asked. Bruce led me to my bedroom, next to his master bedroom. For once, he followed me into my room, and it was unsettling. We had been married for over a year now, but he rarely came into my bedroom unless he wanted to try another sadistic act. Luckily, for being in his sixties, his sex drive—as sadistic as it was—was not overly active. 

“Just one, darling. One member every Masquerade. I don’t want to use you up too quickly,” he chuckled. “But Finn offered me a reward I couldn’t refuse.”

“What reward, sir?”

“His service.”

My brain filled with fog, but his words from earlier came into my mind: We provide our services to other members and use other members’ services.

“You need his service, sir?”

“Yes. That is how the Marked Blooms Syndicate works, darling. To put it plainly for your little mind, I provide my investment expertise to other members. Another member might offer his political influence. And yes, even Finn Carter has a service we need.” He cracked his neck, agitation growing in his voice: “Trust me, darling. Every member has an important role in the Syndicate.”

I stared at him for a second too long, and when his brow twitched, I lowered my eyes.

“Thank you for informing me, sir,” I said.

He reached over, pinching my upper arm. “It may hurt now, but you’ll survive. I know we’ll accomplish great things, darling. I’ll see you in the morning.” He closed my bedroom door.

I checked the video monitor in the nursery. Both of the twins were fast asleep. I let out a long breath. Seeing their chests rising and falling filled me with relief. Like everything would be okay.

Once I was ready for bed, I peeled back the soft sheets and switched off the lights. Even in the darkness, the bright walls were shadowed in reds, yellows, and oranges, like I was washed in warmth, exactly like I had asked. Bruce wasn’t a good husband, but when it came to my requests, he always filled them. And I didn’t have to share it with my mother, my best friend, or even my husband. I had my own space.

A dull pain throbbed in my head, but I closed my eyes and settled onto my side. It was just past three a.m., but it felt later, like the sun would rise soon. Like an entire lifetime had passed since we left for the Masquerade.

Sleep drifted closer, the memories of Finn comforting me, but I knew I’d never see him again. The warm-colored walls washed into the gray darkness, and I drifted off, imagining Finn’s gray eyes holding me. There was no reason for me to be comfortable with him. I had just been another shared wife, and he had simply bought my time. 

We meant nothing.

CHAPTER 3

Ramona

three years later

I blinked awake, swatches of gray fluttering into my vision. Tension pulsed between my temples, and I quickly scrunched my eyes. The satin sheets were cool against my skin, slicker than I remembered. Once the headache cooled, I opened my eyes again, looking around carefully this time. The walls were gray. In fact, everything was gray, even the sheets. Where was I?

I turned my head to the side, finding a dim red glow from a digital clock, the only source of color in the darkness. It was three a.m. Suddenly, everything shifted out of focus. There were shadows I didn’t recognize, but the furniture was there: my dresser, my vanity mirror, my accent chair, the wicker chest with my cardigan lying across it, each thing arranged as if it had always been that way. As if I had always lived in these gray walls. A figure to the side of me stretched, a deep masculine sigh escaping from its mouth. Thick muscular arms wrapped around me. I held my breath.

My husband and I slept in separate beds. In the four and a half years that I had been married to him, he had never held me like this. 

Whoever was holding me wasn’t my husband.

I jolted, shoving myself back, then quickly stood up, clutching my nightgown around me. The man in the bed was huge, more of a boulder than a man, an intimidating force like a slumbering beast waiting in a cave. A beard covered his face, groomed but long like a lumberjack. A large tattoo of a creature spread across his chest: part bird, part lion. His eyes beamed, captivating me, consuming my every move. His eyes were a deep blue, like a frozen pond. 

My heart raced. I checked behind me to make sure no one else was there. We were alone. I cautiously walked backward, like I was fleeing from a bear, with no sudden movements to scare either of us into action. A hint of light from the sheer blinds cast over his eyes, creating a reflective sheen that reminded me of a nocturnal monster in the dark. My breathing became rapid, and the scent of coffee filtered into my nose, followed by musk, so completely masculine that it reminded me of sex. 

Had he done something vile to me?