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Such primitive communities function properly only if there is a stable, perhaps even feudalistic, hierarchy in place, with a good leader at the top. Stephanie lives in a village that's just about as unsafe for a young woman as it can get. The village governor, a rapist and abuser, tries to take her for his own.
Stephanie has a close relationship with pain; one that makes her crave it, need it, and desire it. Without it, she is lost. The men in her life are beginning to understand this about her, but they also understand that some painful experiences, like rape, are too much - even for someone who lives for pain. With the help of her best friend, Jessica, Jessica's husband, Roy, his best friend, Tobin, and Tobin's half brothers, Gerard and Simon, Stephanie flees the village, rather than be taken and used by the vicious governor.
But such a small group living on its own in the wilderness is no one's notion of an ideal life, so they start a settlement, one that eventually becomes a magnet for people able to recognize a stable community with good leadership. The security provided by the new community is welcome, but it cannot answer for all of Stephanie's needs and desires. She still very much relies on the cleansing properties of external, inflicted pain - especially of a sound and thorough spanking - to overshadow and relieve her of the internal pain she never can completely avoid. But can she trust her men, these new village leaders, to deliver what she requires?
This story contains elements of intense BDSM play including cutting, dubious consent, menage and spanking, as well as explicit erotic scenes. If such material offends you, please do not buy this book.
I bared my teeth at my arm and watched the crimson blood bead up along the tiny red line. Panting, I grinned savagely.
"Stephanie! Stephanie, where are you?"
I cursed under my breath and licked the tiny wound, my eyes rolling back in my head as I sucked the iron rich droplets. The curtain hiding my bed from the rest of the house was yanked open, and my aunt stood there, her face set. I palmed the bit of ceramic in my right hand and shifted my body to hide my arm, rubbing it dry on my dress as I did so.
"Stephanie. I need help with the laundry."
I hated laundry.
I sighed and got up. Aunt Jolene frowned harder, and I swiped my mouth casually with the back of my hand.
She ignored me, and I followed her to the back yard where the laundry tubs were set up. At least the soap in my new cut would burn. I grinned at the thought. Her face pinched in disapproval.
The laundry was exhausting, as usual. I resorted to fondling my pocket with a finger, reassuring myself that the perfect chip was still there. The smell of soap filled my head, chasing away the scent of baked earth.
When everything was washed and rinsed, we took a brief break for hard bread and lard. I ate every crumb, regardless how stale the bread, how sharp the old lard. Scrubbing our hands clean in the washtub, we turned to hanging line after line after line of laundry. There were six lines of just sheets and blankets, three lines of men's clothing, three of women's, and six of children's. I hated the children's clothes the most. Tiny little garments that always smelled like puke or shit when we got them, too many little seams to harbor disgusting things.
So, of course, I was always assigned the children's clothes.
When everything was hung, it was time to mend.
I hated mending. Fingers raw from the soap, I fumbled often. My job was stitching gaping seams or patching any holes. Aunt Jolene did the more detailed work, her back permanently bent from the hard labor. Every so often, I contemplated my needle, wishing I could stab my fingers, fantasizing about the welling red blood, the taste of iron. I murmured in my throat sometimes, and my Aunt would glare. It wasn't worth washing the clothes again, though, so I merely fantasized.
When the mending was finished, it was time to take down the dried laundry and fold it, to sort and pack it, piling it in order so no customers' clothes were mixed up. Only then could we deliver it. That was the best part of the day�the only part of the day worth experiencing.
Her shrill voice echoed, and the man appeared. I called him a man, even though my Aunt continued to refer to him as the boy down the street.
He was beautiful. Whereas my labor seemed to grind me down, his seemed to build him up, deepening his voice, broadening his chest, thickening his limbs. His hair was fair and short. He'd begun growing a beard a year or so before I'd started growing my breasts, and my fantasies had been fixed on him ever since. When the other boys grew up and left to join the village's soldier force, including his two elder half-brothers, he and Roy stayed. Best friends, they sold their labor by the day, their rates steadily increasing along with their speed and skill.
My Aunt couldn't afford him if he charged her what he charged the others. But he'd been helping carry our laundry delivery since I was old enough to walk, old enough to carry my own small bag of clothes to our customers. He might have increased his price to her a little, but not by much.
"Here I am, Aunt Jolene." It was the same every night. "Which basket is mine?"
Of course he knew which basket was his. The biggest one was always his, had been for years. I picked up the next biggest, and my Aunt the smallest.
This was also the only time I allowed myself to pity her. Broken by her work and a lifetime of scrabbling to survive, the gloom softened her hard features, and I remembered that once she had been beautiful. Once she had sung songs while we worked, and told me stories, teaching me to read from a book of fantasy tales her grandmother had given her when she was a child.
That was before Colby left.
Losing a man was worse than him dying. No one wanted to take in a woman whose husband wasn't dead, just in case he got nasty about it. No one wanted to provide too much for a woman whose husband was supposed to be doing it�not when they had women and children of their own to protect and provide for. Some of the women took pity on her and made sure their laundry always went to her, so we would always eat. But no man would step in and fill the place that Colby should have been filling.
I hated him.
Once, I had adored him. He would play games with me, would spin tales like the fantasy stories I read, naming all the princesses Stephanie, his eyes sparkling when I grinned, imagining.
But that was before he left, before he destroyed my humble but happy home, before he shattered any illusion I had that there was a god in this world, any illusion I had that anything in this world could last forever.
Nothing was forever, not even pain.
But pain lasted longer than anything else, and so I loved it. Pain reminded me I was alive, reminded me I hadn't faded with the rest of the laundry.
Tobin set his basket down, his eyes on my arm. He never failed to notice, and I never hid them from him. A thick finger traced the red line, and then he slapped me. It wasn't hard, not hard enough to bruise, just enough to sting. My heart filled with joy. I wasn't invisible, not so long as Tobin saw me. I covered my hot cheek with my hand and looked up at his green eyes. They were the most beautiful eyes I'd ever seen, eyes I could drown in, and often wished I would.
He didn't speak; he didn't need to. I knew what I was being punished for. And that was part of what made the cuts worth it�the additional pain, unasked, that Tobin dished out. I followed him without a word as he hefted his basket again, and we trailed my aunt down the street.
Jessica was an angel. I was convinced that some deity had, in its last gasp of life, cuckolded her father and created her. She was love itself.
No one could resist her. She was selfless; more than a few times I'd watched her, gape mouthed, as she handed her bread to a street urchin, smiling as he ran away.
I scolded her. "You realize if you keep doing that, they'll just come back?"
She always laughed, rueful. "I know. I just can't help it. They're so precious."
Precious was not a word I would have used for a street urchin. Ever.
But that was Jessica. Her mother was the same way. If it weren't for her father's stern orders to never give away their breakfast, even while he couldn't prevent them giving away the rest of their meals, they would never eat, themselves. That was the only thing that got her flipped over her father's knee�excess charity. I listened for it every evening as we returned from delivering our customers' laundry. Her voice was like a bell, beautiful and ringing, even when she cried. So I'd know if she'd tried to give away her breakfast again. Or if she'd skipped, unthinking, into the streets too close to the soldier's barracks when delivering medicine to some poor soul. Or if her mother had strayed too far from home in gathering the herbs they used daily, and was taking her turn. Beautiful bells, crying.
She never protested her punishments. I couldn't see why not. Instead, she defended her father when I railed against his harshness. Who could see her as she was and strike her?
"He's just looking out for me. It really is dangerous to go too close to the barracks. Rebecca was raped last week."
"Then why didn't you stay away? For the love of the stars, Jessica, why did you go there?"
Her big eyes said it all before her words did. "Because Rebecca needed the medicine my mother made."
And that was that.
Her father's health declined. Roy stepped in more and more, helping around their home, offering support and strength.
One night, I heard Jessica crying. I dropped my empty basket in our hovel and pushed past Tobin to the street. I entered her house without knocking and stopped short at the expression on her father's face. Grief. Her mother's was serene, as always. Then who�?
Her father stood up, and I finally realized how weak he was getting. His shoulders were stooped from dragging a living out of the stone, building up and tearing down at the whim of those who had much more than we did.
He put his hands on my shoulders. "Jessica is a woman grown. She won't always live under my roof."
I twisted away from him. "Who? Who did you give her to?"
He tried to hold me back, but I threw open the door to her room. There she was, sobbing over Roy's knee. Neither acknowledged me. Relief flooded my chest. He wasn't uncaring, Jessica's father. He hadn't sold her to the highest bidder, but to the man who loved her. I sagged against the doorframe.
"I didn't know."
He pulled me back and shut the door, leading me to the table. "You didn't trust me, you mean." I set my jaw and didn't back down. "I won't lie to you, Stephanie. There were many, many offers, many men who wanted her to decorate their arms or their harems, and were willing to pay handsomely for the privilege."
"When I saw your face, I thought you sold her."
His smile was sad. "I couldn't do that to her. Still, it hurts to hear her suffer. But Roy loves her, and he only punishes in an effort to keep her safe."
I finally relented. "I know."
We waited, the room perfumed with the scent of broth and herbs. Eventually, the spanking finished, the sobs abated, her mother got up.
"No, thank you, ma'am." She dished me up a ladle-full, anyway, and I ate it, slowly, trying to let it seep into the empty spots in my stomach.
When the two emerged, Roy's thick arm around Jessica's shoulders, I could see her lean into him, see her contentment. I swallowed hard. It was true; until that minute, I hadn't really trusted her father's judgment.
They sat down, and her mother dished up a big bowl of soup for Roy, a smaller one for Jessica. She ate daintily, and I watched her for any twitch of discomfort with the big man beside her. He was taller and broader than Tobin, but of a similar age, a man accustomed to working hard from sunup to sundown. His hair was long and pulled back into a tight queue. I watched the way he watched her. He'd been a fixture in our lives for as long as I'd known her, for as long as I'd known Tobin. Nothing had changed. I'd always known he adored her. Everyone adored her, but his regard was special. She basked in it.
He spoke. "Jessica will live with me now."
I caught my breath. "No!"
He lived nearby, but even a few houses away seemed like too far. He'd always come towards us, come to her house, not the other way around.
He regarded me with some amusement. "It's not up to you, brat."
I detested when he called me brat. I didn't act up to irk him, but it seemed to have that effect. I ignored him.
"Jessica, you can't! You can't leave me here."
She pinched my arm hard. "Silly. I'm not leaving you at all. His house is just down the way. I won't be more than a few minutes further."
The pinch calmed me, as she knew it would. I bowed my head.
She pinched me again, for good measure. "Good."
Roy's eyes hadn't lost their amusement.
A few days later, she was no longer on my route home from dropping off the laundry. I missed her more than I should. It was one thing to slip into her room in her parents' house under cover of night and tuck myself in bed with her. It was altogether another thing to even consider doing so once she belonged to Roy. I missed her desperately, missed her touch, comforting my nightmares. I missed her skin, scented with mist and berries. I missed pleasing her body in any way I could think of, intent on giving her some small sample of the pleasure she gave others just by existing.
My cuts soon grew so numerous they sometimes reopened during the washing. I would have to dump the water and refill it, rewashing everything in the tub.
One night, Tobin, after tracing four new cuts on my arm, spun me around and gripped the back of my neck until my cheek was pressed against the uneven plaster wall of our hovel. I whimpered. He spanked. Eight stinging swats later, he released me. I spun back around, angry and humiliated.
"Eight! I only cut four times."
It was the first time we'd spoken aloud about the ritual.
He released me, crossing his arms. "And I decided you needed more than four slaps."
He'd raised an eyebrow, and abruptly I found my body had reacted to his nearness, to his spanks, and in that hesitation I found myself pinned against the wall again. I wondered what my Aunt thought of his display of strength. Grunting, I struggled against his grip. His free hand followed my spine to my ass, and then he slapped it hard another eight times.
His voice was low and harsh. "Do you wish to challenge me again, Stephanie?"
And suddenly, in that moment, I wanted two things equally. I wanted to melt into a puddle at his feet, obedient to his every whim; and I wanted to challenge him, every day, every way, until he hurt me again, just as deliciously as those sixteen spanks had.
It was a war that would wage in my heart for the rest of my life.
But on that day, I was shocked enough to submit.
He released me and picked up his basket of laundry, as he always did after slapping me, as if there was nothing else to discuss, no reason not to continue the day's work. After a long moment of watching him and my Aunt walk away from me, neither glancing back, I grabbed my basket and hastened to catch up.