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The bed is the largest one I’ve ever seen, but somehow too small for two people. Too small if one of the people is Ivan. He’s physically large and, more than that, terrifying. What will he do to me? I can’t fight him. God, I’m not sure I want to try. Home.
In the end I push back the heavy blankets, almost as thick as my sleeping pallet in Harmony Hills, and climb onto the bed. The pillow is perfectly soft, so clean, and I let myself drift away. I’m floating on a cloud, plush and high up.
I dream in those moments. I dream about color and light. I dream about the sky.
There is a deep voice from above and all around me, telling me to get on my knees. Commanding me to pray. This is the first time in my life I’ve ever skipped bedtime prayers. The first time I haven’t begged for salvation. I’m not going to beg, not ever again.
The hand on my face doesn’t feel angry. It isn’t a slap for my insolence. It strokes down my temple and cups my cheek. My eyes flutter open. Ivan.
His hand falls away.
“Candace,” he says in the same deep voice of my dream.
And there’s a look in his eyes, the same look Leader Allen gives Mama. The same look he started giving me. That look is the reason Mama sent me away.
“You’ll stay here,” he says softly. “I don’t want you to dance, but you can stay.”
The allure of it beats through me, a heart of its own, thumping away to a dream that isn’t mine. Safety. Home. I want those things, but I want freedom more. I want the flash of lights and of skin. I want the power those women had onstage.
Ivan wants to put me in a cage, but what I really want is to fly.
“Okay,” I lie, because one sin becomes many. Leader Allen taught me that, and he was right. I’ll convince Ivan, though. One day I’ll dance on that stage, and Ivan will watch me.
One day he’ll teach me everything there is to know.
The praise washes over me, undeserved and darkly pleasurable, a stroke along my spine. It feels good, but I know what it is. A trap. A chain around my ankle to keep me on the ground. In this moment, it locks me so tight that I’d accept anything he did to me. If he were to touch me the way the woman with the kind eyes meant. The way Leader Allen touches Mama during prayer.
Ivan leans down, and I hold my breath. Large hands take hold of the blanket, lift slightly. I feel everything between us—anticipation and denial, lust and fear corded together. We feel them together, breathe them in through the air, pulse them with each beat of our hearts. It’s a kind of knowledge, this feeling, connecting a thousand nerve points to the core of my body. This is what he meant by teaching me. This and so much more.
Then he pulls the blanket higher, tucking it around me. “Good night,” he says, eyes glittering in the dark.
He is silver and light, made even brighter by the shadows behind him. It’s strange, the disappointment I feel that he isn’t going to touch me. He isn’t going to teach me. Not tonight. “Good night,” I whisper back.
Then he’s gone, shutting the door against the dark, locking me in. And I slide away into sleep, without dreams, without color, with only the shameless black of contentedness, knowing I am safe for the night.
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I came from a place of dirt floors and holy scriptures. They told me the world outside is full of sin, and the first night I escape, I know it’s true. Ivan saves me, but he does more than that. He takes me. He makes me his own girl.
My conditioning runs too deep. Ivan sees what I am.
That’s the thing about showing a mouse to a cat. He wants to play. And it’s terrifying, even for me. Because the only thing darker than my past is his.
Skye Warren is the New York Times and USA Today Bestselling author of dark romance. Her books are raw, sexual and perversely romantic.