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Lisa's training begins
Six months later

“Morning, “ Riley said, pulling the magazine from her hands. She obviously hadn’t heard him come in because she looked up at him in surprise. Her face contorted in a moment of surprise and fear, she snapped her head down, chin to her chest.

Angus and Riley had always scared Jessica, much more than the other men did. But ever since the men had a strange change of direction in their dealings with her, Angus and Riley scared her even more. She couldn’t quite put her finger on why.

“What have we here?” he asked flipping through the pages of the magazine he’d taken. It was a comic book.

“What happened?” Josh asked, returning from the kitchen.

“Nothing,” Riley replied, tossing the magazine to him. “I believe this is yours.”

Josh looked at the cover.

“It’s Jessica’s,” Josh replied, holding it out to Jessica. Head bent, she didn’t see him. He placed it on her lap.

“Really,” Riley said. He moved to the kitchen. It was early and he hadn’t had breakfast yet. Surely that had to account for the emptiness he felt in his belly. What the hell was she doing reading a comic book? Things had changed considerably, but he hadn’t realized they’d changed this much.

Looking back he saw Jessica pick up the magazine and leaf through the pages until she’d found the one she’d been reading last. As if neither he nor Josh were there, she resumed her reading, her brown hair hanging in ringlets around her face, her expression casual as if she hadn’t been interrupted at all. Was it just him? It was if everything, yet nothing, was different.

The front door opened and the rest of the men came in. Each carried a rifle, which they placed into the gun rack.

“Morning Jess, “ Scott and Jim said walking by Jessica. Jessica raised her head.

There was a barely perceptible nod of Jessica’s head in response.

Riley was again disturbed by how much the plan was off track when Angus followed behind Jim. Jessica snapped her head down and sat statue still.

That was the last straw.

“Josh,” Riley said to Josh who sat on the sofa next to Jessica, apparently reading a comic book of his own.

“Yeah?” he asked.

“Take Jessica downstairs.”

Josh blinked at him and didn’t move.

“Am I speaking in a foreign language or something?” Riley demanded. “Take her downstairs.”

“But it’s nine in the morning,” Josh replied, “we’re not meeting till tonight.”

Riley stared at Josh. It only took a moment before Josh jumped to his feet.

“Come on Jessica,” he said.

Taking the magazine from her hands, he tossed it on the sofa and then led her by the arm to the basement door. They disappeared behind it. The basement was the one place Jessica was guaranteed not to escape from … extra precautions were practiced anyway.

“You sure she can’t come eavesdrop at the door?” Riley asked when Josh reappeared.

“I handcuffed her to the sofa … “ Josh replied.

“Good. Sit down,” he said to Josh and Scott, who were the only ones still standing around the table.

“What’s up?” Scott asked sliding into an empty chair.

“I’ve been re-evaluating, and I don’t think things with Jessica are where I want them to be.”

“She hasn’t made an escape attempt in months,” Jim said.

“Not good enough,” Riley replied.

“What more can we expect from her?” Scott asked, “I don’t know about you, but I’m glad she isn’t taking every possible opportunity to scratch my eyes out.”

“Now that’s your problem,” Riley said, “that’s the problem you all have. We agreed that our ultimate goal is complete compliance from Jessica, heart and soul, she needs to be ours.”

Scott shook his head as he looked at the barred window near the front door. To minimize the chance of escape the men had changed the windows to open in, and added bars. It was too hot to not have open windows, and given their livelihood, they were likely to need alternate exists from the house, so the bars they installed had combination locks so they could be removed in an emergency. The window stood open now, a slight breeze blowing in.

“What can we do about that?” Josh asked, “You’ve said no to drugs … we’ve stopped talking about her family. Knowing Jessica, this is going to take a long time. The first six months we had her were a nightmare. The way she cried, fought like a wildcat, and schemed to escape. And yeah, the next six months were quieter. She cried less, fought less, but still schemed. But now, who knows what state she is really in. She barely cries anymore. Never fights anymore. But does she scheme? That a question none of us can really answer. It’s taken over two years to get to this … “ Josh continued, “it could be another five before we can truly trust her.”

Josh looked at Angus who was slumped on the kitchen chair, arms folded, scowling. He’d snickered when Josh had spoken. When he realized that they were all looking at him, he leaned forward, elbows on his legs, hand clasped in front of him.

“We are never going to be able to trust her. Unless we fry her brain … which for some reason Riley’s not willing to do, we can never trust her. And to be honest, even if we drugged the shit out of her, I would not trust her.”

“What kind of a victory would it be if she capitulated because we’d drugged her?” Riley said, “We’ve made some progress … we just have to speed things up.”

“By speed things up, “ Jimmy said, “I sure as hell hope you don’t mean beating the crap out of her. We haven’t gotten this far with violence.”

“We’re painfully aware of your take on this,” Angus muttered to Jim.

“Yes, Jim, just what do you see as the secret to your success?” Riley asked and he couldn’t keep a hint of jealousy out of his voice.

“I’d say getting rid of that damn leash was a good start,” Jim replied. His cheeks flushed pink as old emotions surfaced. He had fought long and hard for that, despite Riley and particularly Angus’ resistance.

“That’s right, “ Scott jumped in. He wasn’t in the mood for a repeat of the turmoil that had surrounded that decision. The harness and leash had been discarded months ago and as Jim had predicted, she had not made any attempts to escape since.

“Something has changed with her. She’s been … friendlier … lately.” Scott continued. On reflection he realized that she was likely responding to his actions. It had never occurred to him that things would turn out like this. He never thought they’d keep her. He never thought he’d like her, never thought he’d share her with the other men. But that’s how it had turned out.

“She’s duping you,” Angus shouted at Scott as he sprang from his chair. “Have you forgotten what she’s done to you? One morning we’re going to find you with your throat slit Scott … “ Angus said jabbing his finger in Scott’s face.

“Knock it off,” Riley said stepping between Scott and Angus. “This has all been a good start. What we need now is compliance on her part, and not only on things that she’s forbidden to do. Now we need to focus on getting her to be proactive. To get her to behave in certain ways in certain situations over and over again. Once she’s done that long enough, human nature will dictate that she will begin to believe that she is ours.”
“What ways?’ Josh asked. He, much like Scott and Jim had felt things improving with Jessica. There was still an element of distrust. She wasn’t allowed to be alone. She had to be watched at all times. But there always seemed to be something impeding progress. For his part, he knew that the fact that he couldn’t fully trust her, kept him from letting his guard down. He suspected that it was the same for her. It seemed that when he and she were alone, things were better then when they were with the other men. He had no idea how this could be changed … but if there was a way, he knew Riley would find it.

“It all begins with expectations. Until now we’ve worked on getting her to not run away, to not fight us at every turn. I agree with Scott, that something has changed with Jessica. She’s not trying to escape at every possible opportunity. That’s great. But we’ve also tried implementing codes of behavior for her that we haven’t been enforcing.”

“Like?” Angus replied.

He sounded exasperated. Riley looked at him and paused. Riley knew that in order for this to make sense to Angus, he’d have to frame it in that context of how it would help get pay back for their families.

“What do you think Stewart would appreciate more in atonement for his death?” Riley asked, and saw Angus’ face constrict at the mention of his brother’s name.

“Two years ago we enacted what we had hoped would be suitable revenge for our families,” Riley continued. “Even though there weren’t many of us left, our hatred made us more powerful than the small army they gathered to protect them. We attacked Jessica’s parents and her family. We’d meant to kill them all, but somehow Jessica survived. I think that was a sign. We brought Jessica home with the intent of breaking her. Now we can do more than just break her. Think about it … her parents had big plans for her. Remember the research we did on her? They’d expected her to go to West Point. They were expecting her to be one of, if not the first, woman President of the United States. We have a chance here to make her ours. Imagine that … going from a potential Presidential candidate to serving us. To catering to our every desire.”

Riley looked to each of the men.

“I do remember that Riley,” Scott said. “And I remember that we had laughed our fool heads off at the thought that Jessica could go anywhere near West Point much less be a future President. But Jessica has turned out to be surprisingly strong. She’s not just rolling over because we’ve told her to.”

Riley dropped his chin to his chest. And then nodded.

“Riley … don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy sticking it to her over and over again … “ Angus replied, “but I don’t know if using her as our sex toy has really helped in breaking her spirit.”

Despite himself Angus couldn’t help but be impressed by that very fact. Until just recently, when the leash was removed on promise of better behavior from her, Jessica’s level and intensity of resistance had not diminished.

“And that’s why we have to aim for something more … total submission. We’ve told her that she is to give us each a kiss first thing in the morning, before going to bed at night. We’ve told her to look us in the eye, to answer our questions … verbally and audibly. Does she do any of that?” He looked at each of the men. They all shook their heads.

“The answer for Stewart,” Riley said looking at Angus, “and the rest of our loved ones, who we have lost, is that Jessica become not only physically but mentally and emotionally, ours. The more she is forced to comply with behaviors that cause her to actively do something rather than passively comply, the more she will be forced into that position.”

“Then Sean and the others can eat crow too,” Scott added.

“I wouldn’t hold my breath,” Riley replied. “Even if this all works to plan, things’ll never be like they were with Sean and the others. Contact with them, or anyone from the outside, will risk undoing anything that we accomplish with Jessica. She can in no way be reminded of her family and the circumstances that got her here. You all understand that right?”

He looked from Jim, to Scott, to Josh. Angus he wasn’t worried about.

And while he and Angus were just as happy living in a little log house, set deep into their property, far from any road, any neighbor, he knew the others would choose otherwise if they could pick their ideal situation. They were frequent visitors to others in the clan, and even town.

He looked back at Scott. He just realized that Scott had used to go into town almost every night that he didn’t have with Jessica. Somewhere along the way he had stopped. Actually, it seemed to stop after the shooting. Scott couldn’t go to town while recovering … he never seemed to pick up the habit again afterwards. But he still did like to check in on his horses.

“So Scott, your increasing urge to keep tabs on the horses you’ve trained needs to be put in check” Riley had continued.

“And to be fair Riley, you keep tabs on any sick dogs you’ve treated,” Jim said.

“Thanks for pointing that out,” Riley said, ready to cuff Jim. It seemed that the calmer things became with Jessica, the rougher they became with Jim. But in this case, Riley had to admit that as a self-taught vet, who also acted as a pseudo doctor for the men, Jessica, and in some extreme cases, others in the clan, he often felt compelled to follow-up on his “patients”. “I think you get the point that I’m trying to make.”

The men nodded. Despite contact for business with the outside world, or others in the clan, the only people they could trust were themselves. To a lesser extent it had been that way all of their lives.

“Scott, are you going to be able to live with that? I know you used to like the company of … friends, in town. ” Riley asked, Scott was something of a lady’s man.

Scott nodded. They had Jessica to share among themselves. And recently, he had begun to avail himself of the opportunity.

“You two?” Riley asked Jim and Josh.

“Got it,” Josh said. Jim nodded his agreement.

“But I think we’ll have to do more than force Jessica to kiss us in the morning. We have to find a way to get her to feel that she belongs.” Jim said.

“You work on that Jim, “ Riley said unable to keep the sarcasm from his voice. “In the meantime, we’re going to get her to follow the rules.”

Jim shrugged. He’d have to keep on doing his own thing and work on Scott and Josh. He was getting somewhere with them. Despite Riley and Angus’ rough edges, he knew that eventually he’d have them convinced also. Riley was an expert at training dogs. Behavior modification was his expertise … but when it came to people, women, he was lacking. They both wanted the same thing in the end, whether Riley knew it or not. They both had the same goal. Regardless of what Riley and Angus believed, Jim wanted Jessica to capitulate also, but in a different way.

They had all started with a common purpose, a common plan. The irony was that their initial plan was a long time forgotten. Jessica’s spirit and resolve had kept her from capitulating, and at the same time earned Jim’s respect. Though the others were loath to admit it, she’d earned theirs as well. That respect translated into a strange sense of affection.

Riley didn’t seem to realize that he made it abundantly clear that he had affection for her by changing the goal from having her shoulder the humiliation of her family, to having her forget her family, her past, who she had been. As frustrating as it was to have to work so hard at breaking Jessica’s will, that was what endeared her to them. And that endearment was going to lead the men to wanting Jessica to feel as though she belonged with them.

“Remember, we’ve had some success already. When we changed her name from Lisa to Jessica she’d fought that tooth and nail. Remember how good it felt when she finally acknowledged the new name. Victory will be ours.” Riley finished.

“Getting her to acknowledge a new name is not the same as getting her to forget who she is and how she got here,” Josh said. How, could she forget? He knew he would never forget her screams in the middle of the night.

“She’ll never forget,” Angus grumbled. “She’ll find some way to escape.”

“If she escapes, we’ll find her and kill her. That’s all there is to it.” Riley said.

“Amen,” Angus said.

Josh looked from Jim to Scott to see if they had as hard a time believing that as he did. Neither Riley nor Angus had been able to kill her two years ago, nor when she shot Scott. What made them think they could now?

He looked down at the comic book he held in his hand. Here was the one thing that had got him an in with Jessica. They shared a love of comic books. When they were alone, things were much different than when they were around the others.

Okay, Jim and Scott didn’t seem to affect things much, but Riley and Angus made a big difference in how he and she related to one another. He knew the same was true for Jim, he’d seen him playing cards with Jessica before. He knew that Scott was always giving Jessica updates on the horses, that seemed to be a bond for them … But Riley and Angus had nothing. He hoped for Jessica’s sake, that Riley’s new plan would work. If not, there could be a lot more pain coming for her.

“Since that’s agreed, you can go get Jessica now Josh,” Riley said.

Josh disappeared into the basement. Riley looked at the comic book that lay on the sofa. Since when had Jessica owned anything? Josh had said that it was Jessica’s.

Riley checked himself. There were other things to worry about than this. Jessica had sat on the sofa reading a comic rather than formulating some new plan to escape. That was good enough for Riley.

Jessica pulled hard against the cold steel of the handcuff. It didn’t matter, she knew from bitter and long experience that there was no way out of the basement.

At least now she had an excuse to just sit and think, rather than run around the basement frantically pulling on the barred windows, and trying to find a loose brick in the foundation.

She laughed despite herself. As far as she could figure it was almost two years since her family had been murdered and she’d come to this disgusting place.

For a year she’d been put in the stupid basement and for the past few months she’d been off the leash and left untied. Without fail, every time she was free to move around, she would frantically search the same windows, the same walls, with the same outcome.

It didn’t seem to matter though, because she knew she’d do it again, the next time she was uncuffed. She raised her eyes to the ceiling and wished she could get some indication as to whether her family forgave her for the concessions she’d made to get herself free of the leash. She felt even guiltier because she knew that under no circumstances would she let herself be put back on the leash.

“Sorry,” she whispered out loud.

She couldn’t help but find the little bits of happiness that she was getting with Jim, Scott and Josh, likable. If she pretended enough, she could actually forget that these three men had anything to do with her family’s deaths, with her own ordeal.

“I’m weak … “ she muttered, dropping her head against the back of the sofa.

Her eyes landed on the universal gym that sat in the middle of the basement floor.

She spent hours, daily, sitting on this sofa, watching Jim, Scott and Josh work out. Riley and Angus used it as well, she knew, but she was never brought down to watch them.

An idea dawned on her. Rather than waste her time trying to find an exit where there wasn’t one, maybe she could use the time on the universal gym. They always double bolted the basement door when they left her downstairs. She’d hear the bolts open, giving her plenty of time to get back to the sofa before one of them came down the stairs.

She may be morally weak, but physically, she wouldn’t have to be.

How could she account for the sweat though? It was too easy. She could just pretend to be asleep and having a bad dream. She sweated like crazy when she dreamed about her family. She’d do it … she’d have to make sure that she wasn’t handcuffed though. Somehow, all of this would lead to her escape. She had to believe that. She heard the locks on the basement door tumble. Her heart raced. Couldn’t they just forget her down there for a while … forever maybe?

Josh closed the basement door behind him and Jessica.

The men had settled around the table again, drinking coffee. Riley watched Jessica stand silently beside Josh.

“Bring her here Josh. Has she had breakfast yet?”

“Not yet,” Josh replied, leading Jessica to the table by the arm. “We were going to work out before eating.”

“I said good morning to you earlier Jessica, and your response was less than satisfactory. You’ve been told that you are expected to give us each a morning kiss and say good morning, I have yet to see you do that.”

Jessica stood motionless, as if she hadn’t heard a word. Jessica closed her eyes. Why couldn’t they just leave her alone?

Angus, who had been slouching, pulled himself up in his seat. Riley stared hard at Jessica, his teeth clenching tighter and tighter. His face grew red.

“Morning kisses,” Josh whispered to Jessica.

Jessica turned to Josh. He had dirty blonde hair, and brown eyes. As with the other men his body was bulging muscle. She felt the hard muscle as she laid her hand on his forearm for support. She forced her eyes up and looked at his thin, hard lips. He had stubble on his chin, just a light smattering of hair. She knew he would shave it off soon. The one thing she was thankful for with Josh was that unlike Angus with his sandpaper skin, Josh kept his face fairly smooth. At least his nightly assaults on her didn’t add stubble burn to her suffering.

“Good morning,” she muttered and tried to force her eyes to his. But Josh was leaning in to her lips already. Despite how hard his lips looked, when they landed on hers, they were soft, searching. For a moment she was afraid he’d slide his tongue into her mouth too. Instead, he abruptly moved away. Jessica looked down at his chest, it was heaving. In a moment he cleared his throat,

“Now the others …” he said and nudged her toward the kitchen table.

Jessica flicked her eyes up quickly and to her relief she saw Scott and Jim sitting just to her left. She went to Scott. He had brown hair and deep dark brown eyes. He, like the others, seemed larger than life, even sitting in a chair. They prided themselves on staying in shape, and through Scott’s t-shirt and jeans, muscles bulged. She stopped in front of him. He’d shaven that morning, his face had a chiseled yet smooth look.

Knowing how he looked, how he felt, in detail was the reason Jessica was terrified of Riley and Angus. She realized now that these new rules, their strange demands of her, brought her too far into their personal space. And that allowed Riley and Angus, particularly Angus, to terrify her in a far more personal way. Odd as it seemed, it was even worse than when he raped her.

Scott was looking intently at her when she peered up at him from her lowered brow. There seemed to be an urgency to his expression that caused Jessica to hesitate. She dropped her eyes. She felt his firm grip on her forearm.

“Jessica,” he said in a low voice. Something wasn’t right, Scott usually saved that tone for the bedroom, when they were alone. Despite herself, she looked up. His lips formed a silent word, “Kiss”. Jessica leaned into him, felt his chest like a brick wall beneath her hand, and kissed him on the lips. “Good morning,” she muttered.

“Now Jim,” he whispered into her ear when she stood in his embrace. She never thought there’d be a time when she’d actually feel safer in Scott’s arms then standing on her own. But, here it was.

At least she was going to go to Jim, and Jim still felt safe. She pushed away from Scott and moved to his left.

Jim had blonde hair, blue eyes. He was the youngest of the men but despite his youthful exterior, he was just as solidly built. He didn’t carry himself in the same way that the others did. Always clean shaven and more often then not, non-threatening, Jim was easy to willingly go to.

Jessica kissed him on his lips and said good morning. Riley was to Jimmy’s left and Jessica felt rooted to the spot.

Riley had been drinking his coffee and watching Jessica as she made her way from Scott to Jim.

“Go on,” Jim urged, and pushed Jessica toward Riley. She took a step toward Riley, and paused. When her eyes moved to the floor Riley felt anger rising. He could take the most ill-tempered, high strung dog, and within hours have it obeying his every command instantly, but Jessica he’d had for years and she still couldn’t follow one simple instruction.

All she had to do was go over and kiss him on the lips, say good morning and move on. How fucking hard could that be?

Jim had noticed Riley’s reaction.

“Jess,” he whispered behind her, “get over there!” and he gave her a push toward Riley. The push got her closer, but again she stopped.

“Well,” Riley said his voice low, but so hostile that as far as Jessica was concerned he may as well have been yelling. “It appears that someone can’t live up to her end of the bargain. Perhaps we should start removing privileges … like freedom from the leash …”

Jessica sprung forward as if on a catapult and landed in Riley’s embrace. She was not going to lose the little freedom she had.

“I thought that might get your attention.” Riley said. “For the last time. When you come in a room, you immediately make eye contact, go to each of us, and greet us with a kiss. I don’t know what we have to do to get this simple thing drilled into your head, but I’m not reminding you again. Look at me!”

Jessica raised her eyes and tried to maintain contact with Riley’s. Riley had black hair and steely black eyes. His face was always so hard set that it looked like it was nothing but an etching in stone. That was the most she’d heard him say to her in a very long time.

She never really knew what he wanted from her. It seemed like there was some secret agenda he had and she was supposed to magically know how to meet it.

On one hand, he wanted her to stay within the confines of some very vigorous rules. If she so much as batted her eye when she wasn’t supposed to, he, or Angus, was all over her. But then, at the same time Jessica felt as though he was looking for some sort of spontaneity from her. She didn’t know how she was expected to figure these things out, but then, she never had the desire to try.

Her primary goal was to make things as difficult for the men as she could. She had to admit that in the past few months she had been less inclined to be difficult for Scott, Jim or Josh. But Riley and Angus, with their overbearing and cruel ways, still stirred the rebellious feelings within her.

There was that … and there was also the fact that both Riley and Angus scared the crap out of her. As she tried to maintain eye contact with Riley she grappled to use a trick she’d taught herself months earlier. The key to her success at getting off the leash. She had to reach deep down inside herself, and force a calmness to spread over her. Moments later she felt a fog setting in.

“And the other thing?” Riley asked puckering his lips.

If all Riley wanted was a kiss, what was the big deal, she wondered. There were worse things he could be asking of her.

Jessica leaned forward and brushed her lips against his. She could see a smirk replace his puckered lips. She felt anger beginning to rise but she focused on smothering it. She pushed all thoughts from her mind, all knowledge of who she was, who Riley was, what the situation was, were gone. She felt her muscles begin to relax.

He was still not fully satisfied with the eye contact, or the kiss. But he became aware of something that was in keeping with the comparison to his dog training. The more afraid the dogs were of him, the more obedient they were, but some had problems not in the obedience but in the execution of a command. It was hard to ‘come’ with their tails between their legs, and their asses and heads to the ground. This could be the case for Jessica, it would explain a lot.

“G … good morning,” Jessica managed. Oh yeah, he saw it now. He’d have to make it less terrifying for her to go to him. Maybe then the obedience would pick up.

Ever since they’d turned their attention from using Jessica as a vehicle for revenge to molding her into an obedient, and willing participant, the men had changed the language they used.

It was six months since they officially decided to drop any talk of payback for the evil of her parents, yet Riley had a hard time changing the he used. Consequently, he tried to say as little as possible to her.

He and Angus had discussed this, since Angus had the same problem. That meant that the times he did speak to her were usually times when he was administering discipline.

Riley supposed it was difficult to willingly and obediently go to someone who never seemed to bother with you unless you did something wrong. He’d have to change that. Angus would have to change that.

Neither one of them were easily adaptable.

“I believe Angus is waiting,” Riley said when Jessica hadn’t moved.

She turned to Angus, tried to look him in the eye also, and moved to him.

Angus had strawberry blonde hair. More strawberry then blonde, but it was often hard to tell since he wore his favorite, grease stained, Harley baseball cap, back to front about 99.9% of the time.

It always accompanied his overalls, which were also covered in automotive grease. Angus scent was forever mixed with the pungent smell of gasoline and oil. Even at his cleanest there seemed to be the lingering smell of grease monkey on him.

The slightest whiff of Angus caused fear to grip Jessica. She fought hard to control her calm, but when she raised her eyes momentarily, the look on Angus’ face made her begin to shake.

His eyes which in their natural state were hazel, transformed to an eerie color of grey. His chin, always covered in strawberry blonde stubble was clenched. He stared at her as if he intended to eat her whole. It was the same look he had whenever he had his nights with her. She wrapped her arms around herself and could already feel the pain he would inflict on her. She dropped her eyes.

“I’m waiting!” he said. In that second Jessica decided that it was better to take what he planned to mete out now, then what he’d mete out if she made him angrier. With Angus, these kinds of subtleties made a difference.

She leaned in and kissed his lips. Angus grabbed her by her arms and held her there.

“Hmmm,” he said, “not very convincing. Try again.”

Jessica leant in to his lips again and this time Angus locked his lips to hers. As he began to move away from her, Angus nipped her lower lip with his teeth. Tugging a little, he let go. “Now that’s a kiss,” he said and released her.

Jessica stood motionless, unsure what to do next.

Riley watched the exchange, and the more he thought about it, the more he was sure he’d struck upon something significant. Maybe it was time to sweeten the pot again. After all, removing the leash and letting her read books had worked wonders.

“Come here Jessica,” he said. Jessica wasted no time returning to him. Angus was always looking for some intimate act from Jessica. Were it Jim, Josh or Scott, it wouldn’t be so hard, but with Angus and Riley, distance made her feel safe. And given the choice between Angus or Riley, she’d pick Riley any time. She was trembling when he pulled her onto his lap.

“You know guys,” he said, “I was thinking that maybe it’s time to let Jessica outside a little. Maybe she could, I don’t know, watch Scott work with the horses? Is that something that you’d like?” he asked.

Jessica forgot to breathe. Had she heard him correctly? He was going to let her out of the house that had imprisoned her for years? Not once since she’d been brought to their home, did she set foot outside the front door.

She could feel Riley’s hands tightening on her arms. He was going to change his mind! She forced herself to nod. And when his hands didn’t relax, she nodded harder.

“Well then, in order to get that, and keep your other privileges, you’re going to have to really work on eye contact, kisses, and verbal responses. You know what we want Jessica, do it, and you’ll keep these freedoms, and maybe earn more. Understand?”

Horses … The word ricocheted through her mind.

The constant behavioral landmines that she had to avoid with the men required her undivided attention, but despite that, she was bored a good part of the time. A change, any positive change, she’d embrace, even if it meant summoning all her courage to look into Riley’s angry, hateful, eyes.

She also felt for the first time like she had a very clear idea of what he wanted. Eye contact, kiss, verbal response. She could do that.

Jessica sat up and looked at Riley. “Yes, I understand Riley.” She said. It was the first perfect answer he’d gotten from her, ever.

“Anyone object?” he asked the others.

Angus had planned on objecting strongly … what was this trend they seemed to be following where Jessica was gaining more and more freedom yet giving nothing in return.

But Jessica’s response to Riley had surprised him. Though he knew he’d end up regretting it, he shook his head in response to Riley.

The others did too.

“Well, there you go.” Riley said. “Maybe you should say thank you. It looks like this may be your lucky day.”

Jessica’s eye contact had wavered momentarily, but she brought her eyes back to Riley’s. “Thank you Riley.” She said.

She turned to Angus. Those grey eyes were hard to lock on to. They were strange on their own, strange color, strange criss-cross of light and dark patches of gray across the pupil, but there was always some kind of emotion behind them that Jessica couldn’t quite decipher. Was it anger? Hatred? Impatience? It always seemed to intensify just before he did something frightening, like bite her lower lip. Jessica couldn’t remember a time when she looked in those eyes and saw anything different.

Her eyes kept slipping away but she managed to bring them back for a few seconds at a time , “Thank you Angus,” she managed to say, clearly for a change. She thanked each of the men in the same way.

Scott couldn’t figure out how Riley’d come up with this, but he was pleased. Jessica would love spending time with the horses, and he’d love spending the time with her.

She’d often asked about the horses. She’d never set foot near the animals in the years she’d been with the men, yet she knew their names, ages, colors. Any time the horses would come up in conversation, she had a million questions for him.

“Alright, let’s get you fed then,” Scott said to Jessica, and suddenly he had an idea.

They’d had nothing but trouble getting her to eat properly. He remembered with distaste how early on, Jessica had tried to go on a hunger strike. He had personally forced food down her throat, and when they applied a steady course of coercion she had given it up.

But ever since, she made a point of eating the bare minimum. Every meal involved some sort of fight over eating.

“Maybe we should add eating properly to the list of expectations for helping with the horses.” He said.

“That’s brilliant!” Riley replied wondering why he hadn’t thought of it himself. “If you want to go help Scott with the horses, you have to eat your breakfast, all of it. Jessica …” Riley prompted when she had sat staring at her feet. "I“m talking to you. Look at me.”

Jessica forced herself to look up. “Do you understand what I just told you. Scott’s going to give you some eggs, bacon, and toast. You’re going to eat it all, or no horses today, got it?”

Jessica nodded. Disappointment caused Riley’s frustration level to rise. Screw the horses, screw sweetening the pot! If she couldn’t abide by some simple rules …

“Yes,” Jessica replied, loud and clear. Riley paused and smiled. Maybe this would work after all.

He gathered her in his arms and pulled her to him.

As usual, Jessica was initially as stiff as a board, but then in record time, Riley felt her relax. Maybe this was going to be his lucky day.

Jimmy cleared his throat. It’d been a strange morning so far. In the past it could take a good year from when Riley offered a bribe, and Jessica truly earned it, this morning it took two seconds. What would be next? Flying pigs and snowballs in hell?

“Where do you want this?” Scott asked Riley showing him Jessica’s breakfast plate.

“Right here will do,” Riley said indicating the spot in front of him.

Riley pushed her up to a sitting position, facing the table.

Jessica sat looking at the plate, the men sat looking at her.

Scott had given her a regular portion size, but for Jessica it would probably be too much. They were lucky if they got half a toast into her on a good day. If they could get her to eat at least some of it, Riley decided, that would be an indication that there were real changes going on with her.

It would be something measurable.

A minute stretched in two. Jimmy shuffled restlessly in his seat. Riley and Angus had expressions on their faces that he knew all too well.

If Jessica didn’t comply, and soon, it would be the end to any freedom she’d expected that day, and the beginning of a day of misery.

For her, and for him. He’d feel sorry for her, wish he could help her, but in some distant part of himself he still had some of his own reservations that he needed addressed.

If nothing else, Riley and Angus would ensure that Jessica knew her place and more than likely would not chance acting on any plans she had. He’d been taken by surprise on a few of the stunts she’d pulled on the other men, and so he knew he could never be one hundred percent sure of her intentions.

This was getting unbearable. Jessica had gone from looking at the plate to staring at her lap.

Riley had his hand on her thighs. Jimmy could see Riley’s knuckles turning white as he applied more and more pressure. The more he squeezed the lower Jessica’s head sank.

Jimmy slid over into the seat Scott had vacated, picked up the fork on Jessica’s plate, scooped some eggs up and held them in front of Jessica.

“Jessica …” he said in a quiet, yet urgent voice. Jessica looked up at him, surprised to hear him so close. She had a bewildered look on her face. He waved the fork before her. She nodded slightly and opened her mouth. Jim shoveled the egg into her mouth. He followed it almost immediately with another forkful. He continued this way, until half the plate was empty.

No one had moved, no one had said a word. Jessica worked hard to keep up with the constant stream of food , but finally she refused to open her mouth. He wiggled the fork before her again. She shook her head.

“I can’t Jimmy,” she said in a whisper, “I’m too full.” Her eyes fell to her lap.

Jimmy looked at Riley.

Well, Jimmy’d had to feed her, but she’d eaten. That was a start. They’d let her get a taste of freedom today, and then once she was hooked, he’d insist she eat by herself, and a greater amount At least he knew now that Jessica was finally ready to respond to some enticements.

Angus had been watching Jessica, and he felt the same old frustration. She never did exactly what was asked of her, and never fast enough. As far as he was concerned, she should’ve immediately picked-up the fork and ate all the food on her own. And then, as usual she directed her verbal response to Jim and only loud enough for him to hear it.

“Good job Jim, but you already have the privilege of going outside, seeing the horses.” Angus said, the frustration evident in his tone. “Jessica is supposed to eat her breakfast, and Jessica is supposed to speak-up loud and clear. In my mind she hasn’t earned the right to go out with Scott …” Jessica sat up straight, and turned in Angus’ direction.

“I’m sorry, “she said, trying to keep her eyes on his face, “but I can’t eat any more, I’m full.”

Her eyes slipped back to her lap.

Angus was caught off guard. After years with little or no advancement, it was hard to believe that it was real.

“Why don’t we go brush your teeth, Jess.” Jimmy said, “We’ve got a work out to do before going outside.”

He looked to Riley who still clutched her on his lap.

Riley released her and Jessica slid off his lap and moved toward Jim. Jim looked to Angus, waiting for an objection, but Angus just kept his eyes on Jessica. He watched her until she disappeared in the hallway with Jim.

Even when he could no longer see her, he stared at the hallway. What was she up to? He wondered. Given five or ten minutes alone with her, he’d find out, but it didn’t seem that he’d get that chance.

Riley leaned toward Scott and Josh. “When Jessica’s outside, I want Josh and Jim with you Scott, just in case … it’s easy to get distracted with the horses . . Shit, maybe I should stick around …”

“We can handle it Riley,” Josh said. “You go into town, or do whatever you need to do. All three of us will be with her, at all times.”

Riley hesitated. Both he and Angus had a full day of errands planned, some of which were difficult to put off. He looked at Angus, but his expression was non-committal. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. But then, there had already been some small changes, all in the span of half and hour.

“Alright,” he acquiesced with a sigh.

Something had to change. He needed something to change.

It was no longer fulfilling to have Jessica cower at his very presence. He suspected that Angus felt the same way.

“Let’s see if this will be tempting enough to keep her on her best behavior. Good luck. Angus, stick around I need a word with you …”

Riley waited for Scott and Josh to disappear into the basement, Jim and Jessica following moments later. As was their usual pattern, Jim, Josh and Scott worked out first thing in the morning.

“You didn’t object to Jessica helping Scott with the horses.” Riley said when the basement door closed and the sound of footsteps going down the stairs dissipated.

Angus shrugged. “I guess you have your reasons for doing what you do,” he replied. Riley smiled. Good old Angus, he could always rely on him to back him up.

“I have a plan, but for it to work, you and I have to change the way we deal with Jessica.”

A shadow passed over Angus’ face. Change was never something easy for him.

“Think of Jessica the same as you think of Sam, out in the kennel there,” he said referring to a pit bull of theirs with which they’d had considerable trouble when they first brought him home.

“Sam?” Angus replied, liking the sound of this even less.

“Remember how we had to start throwing him a few bones now and again? When he did the littlest thing right, we had to pet him real good, talk in a quieter voice, give him a treat?”

Angus nodded, “Spoil him you mean. We had to coddle his sorry ass.”

“That pretty much describes it,” Riley agreed. “Well, we’re going to have to do the same with Jessica.”

“Coddle? Jessica? Are you kidding me?” Angus asked in amazement. “If there’s anyone in this world who does not need coddling, it’s that girl. Have you forgotten all she’s done to us? Christ, you’re joking right?”

“No, I’m not joking. Lord knows she’s strong willed,” Riley paused when Angus snickered, “but we’re working on changing that, right? I threw her a bone, she took it. In the past, she wouldn’t have, today she did. She made a change, and now we need to make one in order to move ahead.”

Angus was shaking his head. “It’s a trick Riley. She’s up to something again …I’m not falling for it!”

“Hey Angus, I’m with you on that,” Riley replied with a laugh, “I don’t trust her as far as I could throw …you. I’m not saying we throw the doors open and let her waltz out! Nothing changes except that we try to make ourselves less scary to her ..”

Angus was shaking his head again. “That isn’t going to work!” He interrupted.

“Think of it this way,” Riley said. “If she’s trying to pull something on us … we’re pulling something on her. How better to catch her at it than to lull her into a false sense of security? She thinks we have our guard down … she tries to execute her plan, whatever it is, and bam, we thwart it. Teach her a lesson, she’ll never forget. But in the meantime, we get the benefit of having her behave the way we want.”

Angus was silent. His chin to his chest, Angus stared at Riley from below a knitted brow.

“Alright,” he finally said. “But when we find out what she’s up to, I get first dibs at punishing her …”

“Agreed.” Riley said, “But if you’re concentrating on the negative, it’s going to come out in how you deal with her. Just pretend, for the time being, that she’s everything you want her to be. She’s your girl. You have to will her to be what you want.”

Angus let a sigh escape him. “Christ,” he muttered under his breath.

“Angus,” Riley said moving closer to him, right up in his face, “Live a little. Let this be your fantasy. I have one, I know you do too. Somewhere inside, you have an image of what you want Jessica to be. Make her it. This isn’t going to work if you don’t really try.”

“This is dangerous Riley,” Angus said quietly.

He was never one to defy Riley. For his whole life Angus had been misunderstood, his reserved nature taken for stupidity or slowness. Riley had been the one person who had always seen the potential in Angus, always treated him like a normal person. No matter what Riley told him to do, he ultimately did it. Riley could tell him to put the barrel of a gun in his mouth and pull the trigger, and he would do it, no question about it. And despite himself, he wanted to comply. Yes, he had ideas about how he wanted Jessica to be. How he wanted her to act, maybe even love him. And in fact, his fantasy included a lot of coddling of Jessica. But it was dangerous, very dangerous. Not only could she escape, but she could trample his heart. He’d been through that once before … he had no plans on going through it again.

“I know,” Riley said placing his hand on Angus’ shoulder. Despite how Angus had tried to paint it otherwise, Riley knew Angus’ break-up with Beth had been incredibly painful for him. “This is different Angus. Jessica is going nowhere. She’s yours, mine, ours, no matter what, for however long we want her. Remember that.”

Angus nodded. “Okay … okay, I’ll do it. I can’t promise miracles though.”

“Just try, that’s all I ask.”

“Right. What about the others?” Angus asked as Riley let go of his shoulder and Angus tried to pretend that he hadn’t needed his show of affection as much as he had.

“What about them?” Riley asked surprised by the tinge of jealousy he heard in his own voice.

All right, if he were one hundred percent honest with himself, he did feel some jealousy. For whatever reason, things seemed to go easier for them with Jessica. “They’re young and stupid. They think with their dicks, not their heads and it seems to have gotten them somewhere with her.”

“So, be more like them, is what you’re saying?”

“Like Josh or Scott maybe,” Riley replied, “but please, please, don’t turn into Jimmy. I can only take one bleeding heart in this group, alright?”

Angus nodded and laughed.

So Riley had noticed it too. The way Jessica interacted with the others versus him or Riley. Well, maybe Riley was right. Maybe they had to try and soften up a little around her. But if she was just trying to find some way to escape … heaven help her because that was where she’d end up, he’d make sure of that.

Riley took a rifle from the cabinet and headed for the door. “I’ll see you a bit later.” He said.

“Later,” Angus said. He looked at the door Riley had just gone through.

Fantasy. Hell, that’d be easy, he did that all the time.

In fact, many of the times that he’d blown up at Jessica lately were because she hadn’t acted the way he’d fantasized that she would. The frustration had been too much, the disappointment too great.

But now Riley seemed to think that he could somehow shape Jessica into the person of his fantasy. Angus wasn’t stupid. He realized that he was going to have to change his fantasy somewhat. Unless he could somehow transfer his thoughts to Jessica’s there was no way she could be exactly what he wanted. So, he’d settle for the next best thing. At least some attempt to appear as though she liked him, wanted to be with him. That would be a massive improvement over the way things were now. Angus moved to the basement door. He opened it.

“Anyone need anything in town?” Angus called down while fidgeting with the baseball cap on his head.

“No!” came the immediate reply from below.

Angus sucked in a breath. Well, no time to start but the present …

“What about Jessica, does she need any supplies?”

There was silence. He began to wonder if he’d asked the question out loud.

“No,” Jim finally replied.

Well, his fantasy Jessica would have had a list a mile long, but in reality Angus was relieved. He didn’t particularly enjoy hanging around in the women’s section in department stores. Picking up his rifle, he left, slamming the door behind him.

In the basement Jessica jumped at the noise. Then she felt relief. Angus was gone for a while, she had room to breathe. For whatever reason, Angus always managed to come in quietly, but when he left, they all knew it.

“Are you done yet?” Jessica asked for the hundredth time. She was anxious to get out to the horses, and it was obvious.

The men had stopped their workout, the shock of Angus’ question disrupting their concentration. Angus never asked about Jessica’s needs. Supplies or otherwise. Jim, Josh and Scott had stared each other. It was a good thing Jim had answered Angus, neither Josh nor Scott had had the presence of mind to.

“Jess, you didn’t happen to slip anything into Riley and Angus’ coffee, did you?” Scott asked. The way she was watched, it was impossible, but he couldn’t think of any other explanation for Riley or Angus’ behavior that morning.

“What?” Jessica asked.

“Never mind!” Jim exclaimed, giving Scott the evil eye.

“Hey, you got a better explanation?” Scott asked.

“No need to plant seeds …” Jim said looking at Jessica to see what her reaction to Scott’s question was. She had already forgotten it and was practically hopping up and down on the sofa.

“Are you done?” she repeated.

“Alright, alright!” Josh said, reaching for his towel. “I don’t know about you guys, but I can’t work out with Jessica practically salivating over here.”

”Fine, “ Scott said with a laugh. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen Jessica so excited. “Let’s go see the horses.”

Jessica was in awe. Her day had been better than she had hoped. She had helped Jim, Josh and Scott clean out the horse stalls, and groom the horses. They had barely stopped for lunch before they went back to the barns to finish up with the stalls.

Now she stood at the corral fence barely able to control her excitement. The men were saddle training a new horse, Ebony. Scott had climbed on the horse while it was in a wooden chute that fed into the corral. Aside from a whinny here and there, he’d been calm, but once Jim had unlatched the gate, the black, enormous, horse flew out in the corral and began jumping, turning, and arching his back. Scott had bounced around like a rag doll for a minute or two, and then flew off landing in a cloud of dust on the ground. Josh, riding a tan mare, Aspin, raced in and scooped Scott up before he could be stomped by the Ebony’s flailing hooves.

Jessica’s heart pounded. It had looked like so much fun! Despite the fact that it reminded her of the last day she’d had with her family, she felt nothing but excitement, happiness. Jimmy rounded Ebony up again, and led him into the chute. Jessica ran, as best as she could in Jimmy’s running shoes, to the side of the chute. The men had tossed her old shoes out and given that Jessica had never been outside of the house, they’d never bothered buying her new ones. Jimmy’s feet were so much bigger than hers, she felt like she was wearing clown shoes. But she was too excited to be self-conscious.

She climbed up the side of the chute. He’d watched her clonk over in his old pair of runners and he couldn’t help but smile. Not only because she’d looked pretty funny, but also because there was no way she could run away wearing them. They were perfect.

Jessica peered over the chute wall. There was barely enough room to slip onto the horse.

“Be careful Jess,” Jimmy said, “you don’t want to fall in there!”

Oh yes she did!

“Can I …” she began, but a whinny from within the corral interrupted her. Josh and Scott were still on the brown mare, but she pranced back and forth, lifting her legs.

“Jim! It’s a God damn snake!” Josh yelled.

“Shit!” Jimmy hissed as he grabbed his rifle from where it leaned against the far chute wall. He flew over the fence and into the corral.

Jessica went into auto pilot. Without thinking she straddled the chute wall and lowered herself onto Ebony’s back. He snorted his disapproval. She wrapped the rope attached to the saddle horn around her hand, and without so much as a hesitation she leaned forward and pressed the lever that unhitched the gate. The horse flew out of the chute.

Jim heard the horse coming. He’d fired off a round, killing the snake, and then he spun around. His mind couldn’t grasp what it saw. There was the black stallion, bucking around the corral, and Jessica sat on top, rolling with the motion of the horse. Something about the scene wasn’t right, but it took him a few seconds to understand that it was Jessica, and she was about to kill herself falling off the horse. Dread grew within him.

“Holy Shit!” he heard Scott yell from behind him, and he saw Josh on the mare race up to the head of the stallion, and try to get a hold of it. In what seemed to be the longest two seconds of their lives, Scott, Jim and Josh watched helplessly as Jessica went around and around on the horse. And then, with a magnificent buck from Ebony, she flew off, and all they could see was dust. Josh took the opportunity to rope the stallion and lead him away. Jim and Scott ran to Jessica. She was getting to her feet, her body heaving in silent spasms.

“Jess! Jess!” Jim shouted as he reached her, grabbed her and pulled him to him. He ran his hands over her body, looking for broken bones, sprains, gashes. Jessica continued to vibrate. When he was certain there weren’t any obvious injuries, he pushed her away from him and looked into her face, ready to soothe and calm her terror, but unprepared for what he actually saw. Jessica wasn’t crying, like he’d suspected, but laughing. She was laughing so hard she couldn’t get a sound out.

“Is she alright?” Scott asked.

“I’m not sure,” Jim replied, “oh crap,” he said as he looked over Scott’s shoulder and saw Riley and Angus barreling at them full speed. Jessica’s back was to them, she didn’t see them coming, but Jim doubted that at that moment she really cared.

“Did you see that?” she demanded from Jim. She moved into his arms, put her hands on his chest and grabbed handfuls of his shirts. She tugged on his shirt. “Did you see that?” she repeated, “that was so much fun!”

“Jess …” Jimmy began.

“Can I do it again?” she asked.

“What the hell happened?” Riley demanded as he reached them. He grabbed Jessica’s arm and spun her around to face him. The smile he saw there made him hesitate. It wasn’t her usual ‘in your face’ victorious smile, but a smile he’d never seen on her before.

The fear Riley’d felt moments before dissipated He and Angus had just returned from town, just gotten out of the car, when they saw Jessica fly from the horse.

As her body had hit the ground, Riley had felt something lodge in his throat. He’d wanted to scream her name, but nothing came out. He was certain she had broken her neck, but here she stood, smiling up at him.

A real smile. And much to his surprise, it didn’t fade when she saw him, or Angus, who’d brushed past him and pulled her from Riley’s grasp and into his own. His hands ran over her body as if he were frisking her, and yet she smiled. She was delirious, it was the only explanation.

“It was so much fun!” Jessica repeated, “Did you see it?” she looked down at Angus as he crouched beside her, hands running over her legs. He looked up at her. What the hell was she on?

He stood up, towering over her, not sure how to react. Jessica spun back to Jimmy. She felt so alive again, so exuberant. She stepped closer to Jim, “Can I do it again, can I?”

“Hey!” Angus roared, Jessica moving away from him being more than he could take. “Get back here Jessica. You don’t leave me unless I say to!” and he reached out, grabbed her arm and jerked her back.

That was a reality check for Jessica. The smile disappeared as she found her footing. She stood beside Angus, head lowered.

“Sorry,” she mumbled, “I forgot.”

Angus paused. She never normally said anything, just stood and glowered. Angus looked to Riley. Riley watched Jessica through squinted eyes.

There hadn’t been any eye contact, and it wasn’t loud and clear, but she’d responded. He turned his attention back to Jim, Josh and Scott.

“What was she doing on that horse?” he demanded.

“Trying to get us to take her to the hospital again!” Angus interjected in a gruff voice. Memories of the aspirin incident flooding back to him.

How she’d found the bottle, they could never figure out, but she had, and she’d eaten practically the whole thing before any of them had realized it. She’d never tried to kill herself prior to that … the men were horrified to think she’d found a new purpose that they’d have to guard against. It soon became obvious that her intention hadn’t been to off herself, but to force them to take her to the hospital. She’d looked almost triumphant as she kept repeating the word ‘hospital’.

Riley had dashed any hopes she had of that when he ordered Angus to get him a mixture of warm water and soap. He had poured it down her throat, until he was sure she’d vomited everything up.

“If you want broken bones Jessica,” Angus continued, “you don’t have to ride a horse to get them … I’ll gladly oblige!” He’d hung on to Jessica’s arm and now he pulled her by it until she was on her toes. He stuck his reddening face into hers.

“She just wanted to have a little fun!” Jim said quickly, trying to divert what he knew was likely to come for Jessica.

“Fun?” Angus asked, staring into Jessica’s eyes. Their faces were so close she had little choice but to look back. “I can dish that out too!” with a sound that resembled a growl he turned on his heel and began stalking back to the house, dragging Jessica behind him.

“Stop!” Jim yelled and ran to stand in Angus’ way, “she asked me if she could ride Ebony.”

Angus glowered at Jim as they stood facing each other, and Jim began to wonder if he’d end-up with a few broken bones too.

“That was fucking stupid!” Angus finally said. “Really fucking stupid. Jessica can come up with her own ways to escape Jim, she doesn’t need your help!” He yanked Jessica to his side. “Besides, it doesn’t matter whether she asked you or not, I have a few things I’d like to say to Jessica in private anyway.”

“Angus,” Riley interrupted, “I think this is something we need to address with Jim.” Angus turned to look at Riley. He was trying very, very hard to control his anger. Jim moved forward, next to Jessica.

“I admit it wasn’t the best idea …” Jim began, “but guys, she’s so damn bored. I thought that was part of the agreement, that she’d have a little more freedom, and fun.”

As Jim spoke, Jessica slipped her free hand into his. He was always there for her. He always did what he could to protect her.

Riley blinked. What the hell … Jessica’s stance hadn’t changed. She stood, head lowered between Angus and Jimmy, but she had taken Jimmy’s hand. And Jimmy had the nerve to stand there and talk to them as if Jessica seeking out physical contact was the most natural thing in the world .

Riley felt anger rising. Damn Jimmy, he was always sticking up for Jessica, always looking like the good guy! Funny how he never seemed to be at the receiving end of one of Jessica’s escape attempts. If he were, maybe he wouldn’t be so quick to defend her!

“That’s cute Jessica.” Riley said. “Maybe you’d like to hold Angus’ hand while you go back to the house. I think you’ve had enough freedom for today.”

Jessica dropped Jim’s hand, but not before Angus saw her holding it. He didn’t know what to feel first, angry or jealous. He let go of her arm and held out his hand, mentally daring her not to take it. Jessica reached out and wrapped her fingers around his pinky.

“Hand, Jessica,” Angus said in his gruff tone, “if he’d wanted you to hold my little finger, he would have said so. Take my hand!”

“Angus,” Riley interrupted, “remember what we talked about this morning.”

“Right,” Angus replied and thought it was funny that Riley would want him to go easy on Jessica. By the expression on his face, Angus could tell Riley wanted to have a private moment or two with her also. “My hand Jessica!” He said, trying to soften his voice. Jessica took his hand in hers. ‘Well, what do you know?’ he thought to himself. She’d obeyed without the application of brute force or bloodshed. Angus felt his blood pressure coming down. He led the way to the house.

As they walked Jessica realized that for the first time that she could ever recall, Angus was actually walking with her, not dragging her. And somehow, she had not been beaten, as she most assuredly would have been any other time. Her mind raced. What had changed?

She knew there was still a good chance Angus would beat her once they got to the house, but out of the corner of her eye she could see the way he was walking. His free hand hung loose at his side, his steps were regular, not driven into the ground. His torso was upright, not leaning in the direction that they were going. This was not his angry stance, there were none of the usual tell-tale signs she recognized just before he dragged her to his room, threw her on the bed and used his belt to administer what he considered to be ‘little reminders’.

Even Riley had been surreally calm. Riley had said he wanted eye contact, verbal responses, and kisses. Was that all it would take to make them happy? To get them to leave her alone? She would try, she’d have to try, to do what Riley had said. For the first time since coming to this God forsaken place, she had been happy, excited, free. She wanted it again.

“Sit down,” Angus said when they’d entered the house and stood before the sofa. His voice had been gruff, but not angry. She forced her eyes to meet his.

“Okay,” she replied, intending to say it clearly, but only managing a whisper, and sat down.

Angus stood over Jessica, looking down at her bent head. He couldn’t help but feel as though she were planning something, yet, she’d looked at him, actually looked at him, and even said something that he hadn’t had to pry out of her. He was confused.

Jessica pulled her legs up onto the sofa, wrapped her arms around them and began to rock.

Coddle was the word Riley had used, just like they’d done with Sam. Somehow Angus doubted that a pat on the head and a doggy treat would do it for Jessica. He sat down beside her.

She grew still for a moment, and then began rocking again.

Hesitantly he placed his arm around Jessica’s shoulders. If she head butted him, bit him, jabbed him with her elbow, or stomped on his foot … he was going to make her pay. He pulled Jessica to his chest, and she went with no resistance. He held her like that, moments passed before he began to relax. He became aware of the scent of her shampoo. He’d rested his chin on the top of her head. The fragrance was amazing. It intermingled with Jessica’s own scent, and Angus began to feel a strange mix of emotions. Fantasy. Well, in his fantasy, he’d try and comfort her after having the fright of falling off a horse, and she’d show her appreciation by kissing him … without him having to demand she do so. And not just a peck either, a real kiss.

Just how was he supposed to make her into his fantasy, as Riley had commanded? The only way he knew how, hadn’t worked up till then. He thought about Jim. Jim coddled Jessica all the time, and seemed to get results. In his mind’s eye he could see past situations in which Jim would lean in to Jessica and say “it’s okay”. Angus glanced at the front door. The others didn’t seem to be coming. Christ, this was going to be the death of him! He took a deep breath and mumbled, “It’s okay.” Jessica didn’t react. She certainly didn’t kiss him. Oh well, he’d tried, he could tell Riley that.

As they sat there, Angus became aware of the soft mound of her left breast against him. His reaction was instantaneous. He wanted her, right then, right there, but when he brought his left hand to her breast, Jessica tensed. Warning bells went off in her head … why had she gotten so close to him? She pressed her hand onto his chest as if prepared to use it to push herself away from him. Angus dropped his hand from her breast in frustration. This was not what his fantasy Jessica would do! He sat wondering what to do next, what Riley would consider acceptable given the circumstances, and suddenly Jessica relaxed against him again. Relief flooded over her, and her mind went back to replaying her ride on Ebony.

Angus got the message loud and clear, but he wasn’t sure it was something he wanted to hear. This wasn’t the time or place anyway, but he really wanted her. He wasn’t used to letting Jessica dictate anything to him, particularly when, where, or how he could have her. He threw his head back against the sofa. Damn it, this didn’t need to be so complicated.

As soon as Jessica was out of hearing range Riley grabbed Jimmy by the front of his shirt.

“Jim, you dumb bastard, get your head out of your ass and start being responsible will you! How could you have possibly thought that letting Jessica ride an untamed horse was a good idea?”

“Look, I’m sorry, alright? It all happened so fast …” Jimmy was grasping at straws. He wanted to sound convincing, without sounding too inept. The last thing he wanted was for Riley to not trust him with her anymore.

“If she thought Russian Roulette was fun, would you let her play that too? Well?” he demanded when Jim didn’t answer. Jimmy shook his head.

Jim, Riley was becoming more and more aware, was young and reckless, apparently something he shared in common with Jessica. Riley shook his head. It was like having a couple of kids! Despite himself, Riley liked the fact that Jessica had been so excited by something so dangerous. So long as it hadn’t been part of her plot to escape, it actually impressed him.

“Finish up out here. I’m going to check up on Jessica and Angus, and get dinner started. Jesus Jim!” he exclaimed and headed for the house.

When Riley entered the house, he was expecting to find Jessica trembling on the sofa and Angus stalking around her. Or, even worse, hearing Angus beating her in his room. So he was taken aback, yet pleasantly surprised to find Jessica in Angus’ embrace on the sofa.

Angus, with his head leaning against the back of the sofa, rolled it to the side and looked at him with an expression that Riley couldn’t read. Riley took a deep breath. In his heart of hearts, Riley knew Jessica had been up to something. She always was. He had an overwhelming desire to get a confession out of her no matter what it took, but she had asked Jimmy’s permission, which was definitely a deviation from her standard modus operandi. Plus, she hadn’t had that angry attitude which almost always accompanied Jessica’s escape attempts. He remembered that smile, it had seemed sincere. On top of that, he had to try and save his interrogations for her real misbehaviors. Angus would take any queue to come down on Jessica, so Riley had to be particularly careful about how he dealt with Jessica. He just didn’t know if he had the restraint necessary in him.

“Is she okay?”

“Oh yeah, fine.” Angus replied. Riley crossed the living room floor to get a dining room chair. He set it down in front of Jessica, and straddled it.

“Jessica,” he said, “sit up and …” he hadn’t even finished his instructions when Jessica sat up, Angus’ arm still around her, and looked at Riley. She waited, and Riley was at a loss for words. He looked at Jessica, studied her eyes, trying to figure out what her plan was. Jessica withstood Riley’s examination for a moment or two, and then her eyes slid down to her hands. It was the same stare healways gave her just before he punished her for something. Not quite as intense, but the same stare. Did he know that Jimmy had lied? Was she going to be in trouble after all?

“Jessica, look at me,” Riley tilted her chin up with his hand, “I need you to look at me. You know that. If you have nothing to hide from me Jessica, “ Riley continued, a hint of suspicion entering in his tone, “you should be able to look me in the eye.”

Jessica tried harder to comply. His voice was unusually gentle. She wanted to keep it that way, and she wanted to be allowed to ride Ebony again. She knew there was only one way that would happen. When she looked at him, she didn’t see any anger, but she expected it to surface at any moment.

“What you did was stupid,” he began. “You could have been seriously hurt. Don’t do it again, understand?” Jessica nodded. A shadow crossed over Riley’s face. Jessica sat straighter

“I … I understand,” she said quickly. She was catching on. Well, he could live with that.

For a moment Jessica looked like she’d say more, but then she closed her mouth and lowered her head. This was something new …

“Did you care to add something to that?” he asked. Jessica nodded, almost imperceptibly. What was this? Were he and Jessica actually having an exchange? Some kind of two way conversation? He looked at Angus and he looked as stunned as Riley felt. “Well I suggest that you say something then …” Riley said.

Jessica’s lips moved, but nothing came out.

“There are two things wrong with this,” Riley said wanting to grab and shake her. “First off, I need you to look at me, and secondly, I need to hear you. One more time Jessica, if you don’t get it right this time, this ‘conversation’ is over.”

Jessica looked up at Riley. “Can I still help Scott with the horses?”

Riley paused. Jessica had asked him a question that was unrelated to when she’d be allowed to go home. He couldn’t recall a time when she’d done that in the past, ever.

“I don’t see why not,” Riley replied, not sure what to make of the change in her behavior. The eye contact, kisses, speaking loudly and clearly, even the eating were things that had been constant points of contention with Jessica. They’d been working on them for months.

Asking a question, while nice if done with no hidden agenda, was never required of her, and therefore a complete surprise. He truly didn’t know how to react. “No saddle training though. Maybe, and I do mean maybe, if you improve your behavior significantly, we’ll let you go for a horseback ride.”

Jessica’s breath caught and she sat straight up, her hands clamped over her mouth. She seemed barely able to contain her excitement. She looked at Riley with an expression he wished he could permanently etch onto her face.

“I’ll be good!” she stated in a voice filled with excitement, “I will,” she added turning to look at Angus and then back at Riley, “Can I ride Chestnut? I’d really like to ride Chestnut!”

Riley looked at Angus, but all he saw in Angus’ expression was discomfort. He knew what Angus was thinking. It crossed his mind too. She was a fast study. What if she’d decided that the safest way to get away from them was to lull them into a false sense of security by acting and doing what they wanted?

“First you have to earn the privilege for riding, then we can discuss which horse you can ride. I need to see a consistent improvement for at least a month before we get to that point. You know what we expect from you, right?” Riley asked. Jessica was nodding,

“Eye contact, kisses, verbal responses.” She answered. This was too weird. Riley began to wonder if he was dreaming.

“And what else?” he prompted.

“Eating,” Jessica added after thinking for a moment.

“Right,” Riley said, and looked back at Angus. This was by far the longest and most civil conversation he had ever had with Jessica. Angus looked like he was going to explode. His face had turned so red that it was difficult to see where his face stopped and his hair began.

“This is bullshit Riley!” he stammered. When Jessica looked at Angus, the optimism on her face fell, and she lowered her head. Angus resembled a tomato again, and that was never a good thing for Jessica.

“She’s got something figured out. She’s trying to trick us into trusting her. Once we’re not expecting it, she’ll stab us in our sleep or something. If she gets on a horse, she’ll take off. I guarantee you, this is not for real, nothing she says is for real!”

Riley considered what Angus said. It was all very possibly true. But if they were careful, very careful, maybe they could get what they wanted from her, and stymie any escape plans she may have had. If they made her good behavior pay off for her, and came down extra hard on her bad behavior, sooner or later she’d have to realize how much easier it was to behave and not do anything to cause a reappraisal from them.

“Let me make something clear Jessica. If you do anything, anything at all, in an attempt to escape, you will lose all of your privileges, including being off of the rope. We go right back to square one, and be assured that Angus will be given free reign to punish you in any way he sees fit, followed by the rest of us. I think you have a pretty good recollection of what kind of punishment Angus can mete out … right?”

Jessica nodded, and then remembering at the last moment, she looked up at Riley. She was pale and looked very chaste.

“Yes, I remember …”

“Angus, I’d like to discuss this further at our meeting tonight, after dinner. I know exactly where you are coming from … “ he said while getting to his feet and lifting the chair. “Is that alright?”

Angus could only manage to nod.

Riley had to get away from Jessica for a bit. Things had gone too smoothly, too pleasantly. It couldn’t possibly last for much longer, and he didn’t want to experience the disappointment that would come with a disintegration in Jessica’s obedience.

“In the meantime, stay on your toes Angus, that’s all I can say.”

Angus grunted in response and muttered “Yeah right,” under his breath. Riley took the chair back to the dining room and Jessica never thought she’d actually be sorry to see Riley walk away.

She expected Angus to reprimand her at any moment, certain she had missed some cue from him that she had been expected to act upon.

Angus didn’t trust himself to say or do anything more. Well at least if he had his hands on her, Jessica couldn’t get away with much. It seemed like more coddling was the safest thing to do. He turned on the sofa and lay back against the armrest.

“Come here,” he ordered, holding his arms out to Jessica. Jessica hesitated, her arms automatically wrapping around herself. Everything about him, his tone of voice, his body language, everything, told her that she was in trouble.

“Now, Jessica!” he ordered. Jessica moved closer to him. He pulled her on to himself, her cheek on his chest. She was rigid against him, but when Angus lay his arms around her waist, and kept them still, she relaxed slightly. For the first time in a long time, Angus didn’t smell of oil and lubricant. It made it easier for Jessica to be closer to him. He could feel her heart pounding a mile a minute against him. Angus stared at the ceiling. He had to admit that this was pleasant. Far more pleasant than fighting with Jessica at every turn, still he couldn’t help but wonder, what kind of a mistake they were making by letting their guards down?

Jessica lay very still. She had no idea why Riley and Angus were being so nice. Yes, Jimmy had taken the blame for her, but normally she didn’t need to do anything wrong for Riley or Angus to find some reason to punish her. Why were they suddenly so nice? The only reason she could think of was that she was doing what they asked.

Angus moved his hands onto her back. Her immediate reaction was repulsion. She felt as though she should get as far away from him as she could. It would be so easy to hit Angus hard, on the Adam’s Apple. He wouldn’t be able to breathe, and she could get away from his constant touch. His hands were always on her somehow, she felt like he wanted to control everything about her. And he was mean. He was always finding ways to hurt her. Even at those awful times when she had to be alone with him at night, and do the things he wanted … without fail he’d bite or pinch her. She felt anger rising, she felt like striking back, making him hurt too.

But the peacefulness of the moment made her pause. It was much easier to lie quietly than be Angus’ punching bag. Besides, she had new, upcoming, freedoms, not to mention existing freedoms, that depended on her complying with the men. She really, really, wanted to be able to go horseback riding. Angus’ hands had settled on her back. He made no attempt to touch her elsewhere. She could do this. What was so wrong with just quietly lying together? She forced herself to try and think about something positive about Angus. There had to be something that would make this more pleasant. Well, he was strong. She could definitely admire that about him. When he held her tightly like he was now, she had no reason to feel as though anything, other than Angus himself, could hurt her. She began to relax. She tried to control her breathing. Maybe if she lay still enough they could just lie like that for hours and she could avoid making a disastrous mistake. Maybe.

“How could you give Jessica permission to ride Ebony?” Scott demanded as they walked the horses back to the barn.

“Even for you, that’s a little much!” Josh added.

“What do you mean, even for me?” Jim asked in indignation.. He knew what they were thinking, and resented it. They thought that since Jessica felt more comfortable with him, he was a push-over. They had no idea how hard he’d worked with Jessica. For years he had been cultivating a rapport with her. Trying to read her, trust her. Getting her to trust him. Much to his despair, he had been hoodwinked by her a few times. But in his defense he had never been in her immediate presence when she’d attacked the men, or tried to escape.

He’d like to think that had he been, he would have been able to read her intentions. He could not find anything in her recent behavior that would indicate something underhanded on her part.

He didn’t dare tell them the truth about Jessica riding Ebony, or it would support that image. He still had some element of doubt as to what Jessica would do given half the chance to run. But this was different

“Jim, I know you don’t want to admit it,” Scott finally said hating the doubt that he felt, “ but you know what Jessica is capable of … there was a time when she’d do anything to get away from us. Maybe she just has more patience now. By asking you to let her ride Ebony, she may have been using you to get us to take her to the hospital.”

“You’re right,” Jim said. The possibility, however slight, that there was something sinister behind Jessica’s actions, shook him. Had she been up to something?

“Let’s wrap this up,” Jim said suddenly, eager to be near Jessica again and try to deduce if there was something to worry about.

“Well one things for sure,” Josh said replaying the image of Jessica slipping her hand in Jimmy’s, in his head. “Jessica appreciated you letting her ride.”

“Right,” Jim said. She appreciated his lying for her, that was for certain. Could Jessica have been trying to use his trust in her against him? He felt like shit, but he wasn’t sure if it was because he’d lied to Riley and Angus, or because he suddenly doubted Jessica.

“Don’t worry,” Scott said seeing the stricken look on Jim’s face, “tonight I intend to be 100% certain about what her intentions had been. If I find out that she’d meant anything other than to have fun, Riley and Angus will be the least of her worries …”

They entered the house and stopped in their tracks. Angus was lying on the sofa with Jessica. Riley was in the kitchen cooking, and the whole scene looked strangely serene. Angus, alone, was the polar opposite to peace and relaxation, but Angus, Riley and Jessica always added up to a highly volatile and explosive situation. Jim knew that there was only one possible reason that Jessica wasn’t being abused in some way, and that was the slant he’d given on reality. He felt sick.

“Dinner’s ready,” Riley said to the gaping trio. “We’re having a meeting after we eat.”

Angus sat-up with Jessica, and neither moved. Angus looked as perplexed about what to do next as Jessica. Jim saw his opportunity to be alone with Jessica.

“Why don’t you come wash your hands with me?” Jim suggested. Jessica jerked forward, as if eager to comply, but then paused. She turned to Angus.

“Can I go?” she asked.

“Uh, yeah,” Angus muttered. As Jim and Jessica disappeared down the hallway to the bathroom, Angus looked at Josh and Scott, as if looking for confirmation that he hadn’t just imagined Jessica asking for permission to go with Jim. Josh and Scott could only look to Riley, they didn’t believe what had just happened either. Riley winked at them, and gave Angus a thumbs-up sign before returning to the kitchen.

“Maybe she did slip something in their food,” Josh whispered to Scott. He was thankful that they were going to have a meeting because he had some questions for Riley and Angus.

Jessica rinsed her hands and then reached out for Jim’s hand.

“Thanks.” She said.

Jim studied her face. “For?”

“For helping me. Riley and Angus have been …” she paused, trying to find a suitable deion. Finally she settled on, “different. I think it’s because of what you said, thank you.”

She seemed sincere. Was she that good an actress?

“You’re welcome Jess.” Jim replied wishing he could just leave it at that, but knew he’d always wonder … “Just before I left to deal with that snake, what was it you were trying to say to me?”

“Before the snake?” Jessica asked, she looked bewildered. “There was a snake?”

“That’s what was spooking Scott and Josh’s horse … I had to go shoot it …”

“I don’t remember a snake,” she said.

“You don’t remember Aspin going beserk?” Jim asked. Jessica shook her head.

“All I remember is that I wanted to ride Ebony. I was asking you if I could, and then I was … “ suddenly a smile crossed her face as she grabbed Jimmy’s arm, “it was so much fun! It was better than any roller coaster that I’ve ever been on!”

Jessica seemed oblivious to the reference to her previous life, but Jim hadn’t missed it. It wasn’t often that it happened, but when Jessica did mention something from her childhood Jim began to feel guilty. And when he felt guilty he became overly accommodating. Was Jessica trying to manipulate him?

“That’s fine, but next time don’t do it unless you actually ask, and I actually answer!” Jim said his voice stern. Jessica froze and stared at him. He hadn’t used that tone with her in so long, she wasn’t sure how to react. Her smile vanished and a pout replaced it. Jimmy felt bad. “I’m sorry Jess, I didn’t mean it the way it sounded …”

“Are you guys planning on eating some time tonight?” Riley called out from the kitchen.

“Coming!” Jim shouted back. Then trying to soften his voice he said “Spontaneity is not a word that should be in your vocabulary right now Jessica. You ask a specific question, and you get a specific answer, that’s all. Got it?”

“Yes,” Jessica replied.

“We’ll talk more later,” Jim said taking Jessica’s arm, “let’s go eat before Riley blows a gasket.”

“Okay,” Scott said once Jim returned from downstairs and closed the basement door. He paused as Jim opened it again and peeked behind it. Jessica was down there, and she was known to try and eavesdrop. As Jim closed the door again, Scott turned to Riley and Angus. “Either we’ve entered the Twilight Zone, Jessica slipped something really good into your food, or you’ve been replaced by less evil doubles … “

“Ha, ha,” Riley said, “don’t quit your day job Scott, you’ll never make it as a comedian.”

“Give me a break Riley. Ever since Jessica came here the two of you have been about as warm and cuddly as a couple of ice cubes on a cold winter’s day, and now Angus is cuddling Jessica on the sofa, and you’re winking and giving the thumbs-up sign? What’s going on?”

Riley looked to Angus in astonishment. “I don’t know about you,” he said, “but my feelings are hurt.” He turned back to Scott, “I was wrong Scott, maybe you’d be alright as a comedian. You’ve got the exaggeration of simple events down pretty good but ditch the colorful metaphors … you make me sound like a fag. Is there a question you’d like to ask?”

“Wait a minute,” Angus said rising from the chair he sat on, “where do fagots fit into all of this. There ain’t no fucking fagots here, and there never will be!”

“And the old Angus is back!” Scott exclaimed. “Thank God too, we were beginning to really miss the anger, the aggression.”

“You want anger? I’ll give you anger, “ Angus said. “stop talking in fucking riddles, or I’ll pop you … angry enough for you?”

“All right,” Riley interrupted, “before anyone has a stroke, Angus and I have decided to take a slightly different tack with Jessica. We figure that if she feels less afraid of us, she might actually listen a little better … not a word Jimbo!” Riley added just as Jim opened his mouth to speak.

He had given them practically that exact same advice ages ago. He’d been about to point that out, but now thought better of it. Well, at least one half of the equation was starting to make a change. Angus and Riley were finally giving in to their need to have Jessica’s cooperation. Now if there were just some way to convince Jessica to do the same. She was oblivious to the simple things that she could do to turn her life around for herself. Jim was sure that with just some simple changes on Jessica’s part, and a bit of time, Riley and Angus could be completely different men.

“Don’t get any lame brain ideas though … “ Angus added, “this doesn’t mean Jessica gets away with murder. She will continue to pay for any misbehaviors she commits. If you insist on being a bunch of bleeding hearts, keep it to yourselves.”

“Something you’ll figure out pretty fast,” Josh said, Angus’ self-righteous attitude getting under his skin, “is that the best way to get Jessica to be less afraid of you, is to actually be less scary. You call it being a bleeding heart, I call it picking my battles. Make no mistake Angus, when Jessica does something that warrants it, I can be just as brutal as you. I have been in the past … you know it, these guys,” Josh said tilting his head in the direction of other men, “know it, and Jessica knows it. There are no hearts bleeding around here Angus, just a whole lot of discretion being used in an attempt to build some common ground with Jessica. Course, you may not have had time to notice, given that you’ve been working really hard at undoing every advancement we’ve made.” Josh’s voice had been steadily getting louder as he got angrier. As he spoke, Angus’ face got redder and redder. Josh didn’t care. He was beyond caring whether he had to duke it out with Angus or Riley. “So fuck you and your fucking high horse!”

“Angus!” Riley said as Angus took a step toward Josh. Angus froze in his place, but his gaze was locked on Josh. He shook as rage coursed through him. The vein on his forehead pulsated. Josh knew he should be at least a little bit scared. He’d seen what Angus could do to men twice his size, but his own anger, his own indignation, wouldn’t acquiesce.

“Let’s not lose sight of reality here guys,” Riley began, “the fact is that Jessica would love nothing more than to turn us against one another. Divide and conquer would work great for her. So let’s not forget the basics … there’s us, and there’s her. It’s true that some of us are at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to how we deal with Jessica, but our vision, our goal, has to be the same.”

“Right, “ Jim said glad that his months of dropped hints and indirect suggestions finally paid off. Riley finally understood the need to be nicer to Jessica … but Jim still couldn’t seem to get it through Riley or Angus’ head that there was more to be had from Jessica then obedience. “Then maybe we should re-define what our goal is. I thought we wanted a relationship with Jessica. We can’t do that if we keep treating her like property.”

Angus snorted as he slid his eyes from Josh to Jim. “Who the hell are you kidding?” he demanded. “Jessica is one hundred percent, without a doubt, our property. To have a relationship with someone, that someone has to have some measure of free will, independence. Now, you tell me Jim, when’s the last time you asked Jessica where she’d rather be, here, or at her own home? When have you ever given Jessica a choice about anything? She’s as much our property as that couch. “ he pointed at the sofa that sat to the left of him, “If you want to delude yourself into believing differently, don’t expect me to play along!”

“Angus,” Scott jumped in, “you don’t go out of your way to beat the crap out of the sofa every chance you get. Just cause she’s your property doesn’t mean you have to be so damn hard on her!”

“You’d be right, except for one thing,” Angus replied, “that sofa don’t go out of its way to try and kill me. For that, I gladly leave it alone.”

Silence hung in the air. Riley let it hang for a full five minutes while contemplating his next move. At all costs, the men had to remain united.

“Let’s not forget where our loyalties lie,” Riley said. “We’ve known each other since the day we were born. Our families joined into one huge family, and our families suffered at the hands of Jessica’s parents. Our first consideration should always be one another. Jessica should not in any way, take that away from us.”

“She’s not taking anything away from us,“ Scott said, “of course we’re loyal to each other first and foremost. But Jessica’s fear of you, affects all of us. We’re each working on building some sort of relationship with her … she’s a human being, not a piece of furniture Angus!” Scott added when he saw Angus ready to interrupt. “Once you’re dealing with human beings, you’re dealing with relationships. And her fear of you two is impeding any progress we could make. We’ve gotta all try and save any punitive actions against Jessica for the truly deserving situations.”

“Well, excuse us if we’re impeding your attainment of true happiness with Jessica. We wouldn’t want to be too good at controlling any of her attempts to kill you … I mean, I guess it doesn’t matter that had she aimed just a little off you’d be at best a vegetable, and at worst, dead? I guess you’ve forgotten all of that?!” Angus ranted.

Scott lowered his head. Unfortunately, Angus had a point. The fear he’d felt when that gun had gone off came back to Scott as if it were just happening. Jim had been prepared to make another point, but Angus’ words had silenced him. Josh looked at Scott for a moment and shifted uncomfortably. That had been the darkest time of their history with Jessica. In Josh’s mind they probably should have killed Jessica the moment that bullet had hit Scott. But they hadn’t, and Josh sometimes wondered what Scott made of that. True he had never seemed upset by it, he had refused to allow them to punish her in retribution. Though it had taken him a long time to be alone with Jessica again after she had healed from Angus’ initial beating.

“I thought so,” Angus grumbled when it became clear that nothing more was going to come from Scott, Jim or Josh. And then the old anger and frustration resurfaced. “And I can’t fucking believe that you didn’t punish her for that!” Angus spat. “I kind of thought you were just too tired out at first, figured you’d do it when you got your strength back. But you didn’t. And forbidding us to punish her for it … that was just … just …” Angus was so mad he couldn’t find the right words to sufficiently demonstrate his distaste with Scott’s decision.

“I don’t believe you’re bringing that up again.” Jim said when Scott went pale. “That’s ancient history …”

“It’s okay Jim.” Scott said. “Angus, I stand by the decision I made then and you being pissed about it won’t change anything. But I appreciate what you’re saying. I get it.”

Angus grumbled but in truth he didn’t really care that Scott had done something so stupid. True to form Jessica had given them so many other reasons to beat her … and when she did, Angus always put a little extra effort in it on Scott’s behalf. Whether he wanted it or not.

“Are we in agreement then?” Riley asked, privately relieved that Angus had found such an effective way to bring the men to their senses. “Angus and I will attempt to be less frightening for Jessica, but we must never allow her to come between us. No matter what our advancements are with her, each one of us must take precedence over her in our hearts as well as our minds.”

Scott, Jim and Josh nodded their heads. Almost reluctantly, Riley thought.

“I didn’t hear you!” Riley said.

“Yes, of course,” Scott answered.

“Right,” Jim said.

“Mhmm,” Josh agreed.

Hardly a resounding endorsement, but Riley knew that they understood. Although none of the men, other than himself or Angus, had demonstrated it lately, he knew that what Josh had said to Angus was true. They could be equally brutal when properly motivated, and knowing Jessica, it wouldn’t be long before that motivation appeared again.

“Good. Well, that’s it I guess. May as well call her up again,” he said to Jim. Jim nodded and walked to the basement door. He paused before it. He didn’t know why, but somehow the reminder of what Jessica had done to Scott had been a major blow. He felt numb, as if he’d witnessed a horrible tragedy. Maybe Angus and Riley were right after all. Jessica certainly was, and would probably always be, an outsider to them. As he reached for the doorknob Jim shook his head. He refused to believe that. If he believed that, really believed that, what was the point in even trying with Jessica? Taking a deep breath, he opened the basement door. At least Riley and Angus were actually trying to make Jessica feel more comfortable with them. Maybe there was some hope for the change, after all.

“I bet you could’ve lived without being reminded of the shooting,” Josh said to Scott as they waited for Jessica to emerge from the basement.

Scott shrugged. The initial recollection of terror had subsided, and he had felt again, just as he had at the time of the shooting, that not much else could have been expected from Jessica. Had he been her in the same situation, he would have done the same thing. It didn’t make the whole ordeal any easier, but he certainly felt no ill will toward Jessica because of it. Caution, now that was a different matter. Since that day, he has felt a new level of caution with Jessica. He could not afford to under estimate her again … and he would not.

“I’m always reminded of the shooting, “ Scott said pressing his hand on his shirt just over the scar on his chest. “I don’t need Angus to remind me … though I think it means more to him than it does to me. I don’t hold anything against Jessica. War is war, right?”

Scott watched Jessica step from the threshold of the basement and smile at Jim. There it was, the reason he couldn’t hold it against Jessica. There was something about
that smile, the one she saved just for Jim, that caused Scott to strive for something more. He wanted that smile, and everything that came with it, too.

“That’s pretty big of you,” Josh said glancing around to make sure that neither Riley nor Angus were within hearing range. They had moved off to the kitchen, “I’m not so sure that I could do the same.”

“I’m sure,” Scott said, his eyes tracking Jessica as she moved to the sofa with Jim. “Those two, “ he said indicating Riley and Angus, “not a chance. You and Jim, yes. You already have a half dozen times. Let’s just hope for her sake that she doesn’t try something like that again.”

“She’s gotta know that she’d never survive … she barely did after she shot you.”

Scott nodded his head. He looked at his watch. Nine o’clock. One more hour and he could have Jessica to himself. Maybe this’d be the night that he’d get that smile for himself. Jim was pulling out the cards. Scott and Josh each took a kitchen table chair and set them around the coffee table. Jim passed Scott the cards, and Scott shuffled, watching Jessica curl her legs under her on the sofa.

“Ready to play Jess?” Scott asked once he’d dealt the cards. Riley glanced up to see Jessica uncurl herself and reach for the pile of cards, nearest her on the coffee table.

Well, it seemed that Jim, Scott and Josh had finally convinced her to play cards. He guessed that was a good thing. He wondered what it would take to get her to play chess with him. There was a pipe dream. He brought his attention back to the map on the table. They were getting closer to the day that they could bring Kevin home. Angus was busy circling all the roadways that led away from the prison in red. Who knew when the opportunity would present itself … but when it did, they would be ready.

Jim switched seats with Josh, so he could be Jessica’s partner. They always played as a team. He watched Jessica study her cards. It’d been a long process, getting Jessica to participate in games with them. Most of the time, Jessica had to contend with Riley and/or Angus glowering at her all night as the men played. Even when neither Riley nor Angus were actually playing the game, but were in the vicinity, she refused to play. Preferring instead to curl up into a little ball on the sofa, and pretend to not exist. Finally, a month or two ago, there was a night much like this one, where Angus and Riley were otherwise preoccupied. Jimmy, Josh and Scott and managed to lure Jessica into a game by telling her to teach them a game of cards that she liked. She’d taught them a
game called Euchre, and so now, if they wanted her to play cards with them, they’d simply deal out a hand of Euchre. Now her attention seemed only partially on the cards. Her eyes kept shifting to where Angus and Riley sat. Despite the afternoon’s events, she was nervous again. Things had gone too easily so far. Jessica knew that it would be any little thing now that would set Riley or more likely Angus off.

Jim wished he could get Riley and Angus to go in the basement, or something. Every time they were around, Jessica withdrew. No wonder Scott and Josh, let alone Angus and Riley, had such a hard time trusting her. They never got to see the girl she was when she was alone with him. All they saw was a nervous, miserable, withdrawn girl.

It was enough to make him do downright stupid things to try and get the men to see the real Jessica. He thought of a good way to take her mind off of things, and maybe bring a little of the happier Jessica out. Recently, he, Josh and Scott had tried to persuade Jessica to get in on some of their bets. She’d resisted up until then, but he thought he knew how to get her to bet.

“Why don’t you wager something Jess, it’s a hell of a lot more fun. You can get whatever you want,’

“Hang on,” Scott interrupted, “anything you want within reason … it has to be something we have the ability to actually give you.”

Jessica’s eyes darted to where Angus and Riley sat. They hadn’t heard the conversation. She hesitated, and then shook her head.

“Come on Jess,” Jimmy continued, “anything at all …As long as it’s in our control …” Jimmy added before Scott could speak. “For example … if we win, I want my laundry done … washed, folded, put away. That’s my bet with Scott, and Josh … takes my next turn to cook,”

“Right,” Josh said as he picked up his cards. “And if we win this round of Euchre, Jim has to clean out the horse stalls for me tomorrow.”

“Jim does toilet duty for me tomorrow …” Scott added.

“Geez Jess,” Jimmy said, “here’s your chance to ask for anything, anything!”

Scott gave Jimmy a sideways glance. What the hell was with him and promising Jessica the moon. Jim caught his look and held his hand up. He’d seen a flicker of something cross over Jessica’s face, he was close, he could feel it!

“Come on Jess, unless they physically can’t, the guys will honor whatever you ask. Right guys?”

“It can’t have anything to do with Angus or Riley,” Josh said leaning in, and speaking in a hushed voice. He remembered what Jim went through a few months before when Jessica had persuaded him to talk Riley into letting her read books. It was a long, ongoing battle. If Jim hadn’t finally suggested to Riley that Jessica might stop being so difficult if she were distracted, he would’ve lost the fight and been at odds with Riley forever. As it is, Riley, and Angus, view Jim as a push-over. That wasn’t a can of worms he wanted to deal with. He snuck a look over his shoulder to ensure that Riley and Angus weren’t eavesdropping. They sat huddled over the kitchen table focused on their work.

Jessica leaned forward. She’d decided on something, and Jimmy couldn’t tell if the expression on her face was one of defiance or victory. She leaned in even further and held Jimmy’s eyes with hers.

“Okay. I want to shower alone.”

Jimmy blinked. What did she mean? She always showered alone. Jessica’s eyes moved to Josh and then Scott. Jimmy’s did too. By the expressions on their faces, he supposed that it wasn’t the case when she was with them. Jimmy groaned. He hadn’t seen that coming.

Scott cleared his throat. “Jess, you know we can’t leave you alone in the bathroom …”

“No, not in the bathroom,” Jessica said shaking her head, “in the shower. On the nights that I’m … “ Jessica hesitated, “with you, I want to take my own showers … alone … from now on.”

Scott and Josh looked at each other in disbelief. Neither could think of a reason that she couldn’t shower alone. Riley and Angus didn’t need to know. Out of pure selfishness, it wasn’t something they really wanted to give up.

‘Damn it!’ Scott thought to himself. Ah ha, an out! “Only if Jim has to do the same,” he said. That’d fix things pretty easily.

Jimmy shrugged, nothing would change for him. “Okay,” he said, “is it a wager then?”

“I guess,” Josh replied, giving Jim an evil eye. There was always the chance that Jessica and Jimmy would lose, and at least he and Scott would look like the good guys … willing to go along with it, but then ‘oops, too bad you lost’ and they could continue on as usual. If Jim and Jess didn’t lose however, he was going to be stuck abiding to something he wasn’t sure that he could. Could he simply sit in the bathroom knowing Jessica was behind the curtain, all pink from the hot water, rubbing soap everywhere? If he broke the pact he’d look even worse than if he didn’t go along with it.

“I’m not crazy about this …” Scott said while mentally cursing Jimmy for capitulating so easily, “that forever part, it’s pretty long … couldn’t we just make it a day or two?”

Jessica shook her head and leaned back against the sofa.

‘What the hey’ Scott thought, if Jim and Josh were willing to give it up, so was he. It was bit of headway with Jessica. Why smother it?

“Alright,” Scott said, “I’ll go along. But there’s to be no table talk of any kind during the game.”

“Jess?” Jimmy asked. She nodded As Josh turned over the top card in the kitty, Jessica showed an attentiveness to her cards she had never displayed before.

Jessica rapped her knuckles on the coffee table, Jimmy picked-up the upturned card. It was a nine of hearts, he hoped Jessica had a better hand then he did, if she didn’t he could end-up doing a heck of a lot of cleaning in the next day or two.

As the round progressed Jimmy was amazed. Jessica led out with the Ace of diamonds. She managed to win the hand, and at the same time find out that Scott had no trump. The next round she led an Ace of Clubs, won the hand. Ten of clubs forced Josh to play his left bauer, the second highest card of the game. She beat his Queen of spades with a King, and the rest of the round was touch and go, they won by the skin of their teeth. Jimmy marked their point. Jessica didn’t seem the least bit frazzled by the close margin of their victory.

As the next round fell to Jessica and Jim again, Scott began to wonder if they’d been hoodwinked. They got a point on the next round, but although the next seven were close, they always went to Jessica and Jim. She was a shark … plain and simple. Despite the fact that they’d lost something significant to her, Scott couldn’t help but be impressed. She’d played every hand perfectly.

“Woo wee!” Jim exclaimed tossing his last card onto the table, “We won! I don’t know how … but we won!”

“That wasn’t exactly the way you taught the game to us,” Josh said, not sure what to think about her obvious sneakiness. Next time he planned to be on her team.

“No, “ Jessica replied with a smile, “that’s what I like to call ‘Suicide Euchre’, it helps if your partner can back you up.” She looked at Jimmy with a shy tilt of her head.

“You counted on us sucking at the game!” Scott declared a look of astonishment on his face.

“Oh yeah!” Jessica replied and giggled. When Scott shook his head and smiled, she giggled even more.

“We’ve been had!” Josh said to Scott and despite himself, he was actually happy about it. This was a real, genuine giggle, they were few and far between.

It had caught Angus and Riley’s attention. They sat watching the group around the coffee table. To hear Jessica giggle out in the open like this was unheard of. Every so often a giggle could be heard from within Jimmy or Scott’s room, and sometimes even Josh’s, but in front of everyone, never before.

Jessica noticed Riley and Angus looking over. Riley didn’t look angry anymore, and Angus had replaced his normally hostile expression with something resembling tolerance. Jessica looked away before she could do something to change their mood.

“You look awfully happy for a couple of guys who just lost,” Angus said.

“We’re in shock,” Scott replied. He looked at his watch. Ten o’clock. Jessica was in a good mood. Now was the time to get her out of here, before Riley or Angus bullied her back into a bad mood. “Okay Jess. I don’t know about you, but I’m bushed. Let’s call it a night.” He stood, and held his hand out to her. She took it and got to her feet.

“Good night kisses Jess, “ he reminded her. Jessica pecked Josh and Jim on the lips. She turned and hesitated for a moment. Scott heard her take a deep breath and then she moved toward Angus and Riley. She kissed them both on the lips and moved quickly to the hall leading to the bedrooms. Scott was right behind her. Quick exits were always good. He was pretty sure that both he and Jessica held their breaths until they were safely in the bathroom. It didn’t take much to set Riley or Angus off. They weren’t beyond calling her back and questioning her about why her eyes crossed or some other equally mundane thing.

The bedroom door closed behind them. Jessica was wrapped in a towel, and with her back to Scott, she slipped into her pajamas. It had been weird, not showering with her, but compared to the rest of the day, it barely mattered.

He’d given up on sex in the shower with Jessica, ages ago. In fact, he’d pretty much given up on sex with Jessica, period. He’d had his share of girls before, mostly one night stands, and he knew when a girl was into it, and when one wasn’t.

Jessica, without a doubt, wasn’t. It had gotten to the point where it was too depressing to even try. He’d always tried to make it good for her, he knew all the things that made most girls beg for more, but little surprise, Jessica was not like most girls. So, he’d resigned himself to the fact that a shower with her was merely the thrill of being close to her. He enjoyed lathering her up, toweling her off, and yes, once in a while it led to other things despite the fact that Jessica just didn’t get out of it the kind of pleasure he had hoped. Invariably, his pleasure suffered also.

He got into bed and waited for her to join him. There was always the cuddling. That she didn’t seem to mind. In fact, if he didn’t know better, he would’ve sworn that the cuddling was what got Jessica off.

She was faster than usual in getting into the bed, and something seemed different. She bounced up and down on the bed, on her knees, and actually had a smile on her face. It probably had to do with the fact that she actually had some food in her. She had eaten more that night, than she would normally eat in a week. He had been a little freaked out by that, until he’d heard Riley’s plan. Although Riley’d tried, as usual, to pass it off as a collaboration between him and Angus, Scott knew that there was no way Angus would’ve come up with the idea. In fact Scott was amazed that Riley had managed to get Angus to go along with it.

None of that mattered … it seemed like some positive change was finally coming. He took it as a good sign that Jessica seemed willing to finally take advantage of some incentives. It had always been frustrating in the past when she had opted for the hard and painful path. It had not been a picnic, for anyone.

“Riley said that if I’m good for a month, I can go horseback riding with you.” Jessica announced as she bounced on the bed. She seemed so excited, so alive. He’d never seen her like that before. “Can I ride Chestnut?” She asked bouncing closer to him, “Please, please, please!”

“Chestnut?” Scott asked, overwhelmed by her enthusiasm. He laughed, “Why Chestnut?”

“Because, he’s your favorite horse, “ Jessica lifting her pointer finger, “he’s young, and fast, and he’s beautiful!” she added, raising a finger for every point. Jessica was so pumped that Scott pulled her down to him, and kissed her. No matter what she did, she got his juices going, but now she seemed so passionate, so ready … Jessica tensed.

“Come on Jess, just relax, I’ll make it good, I promise …” he whispered as his hand ran the length of her body. She fell onto her back next to him, and he proceeded to kiss every inch of her body as he worked his way down toward his favorite reward. He was so primed, all that pent-up sexuality ready and willing, until he opened his eyes. Jessica was lying, as stiff as a board, staring at the ceiling. She looked like she was counting the specks in the stucco to entertain herself.

Scott dropped his forehead on her stomach, he couldn’t go on. He stayed like that for a minute, two minutes, and Jessica didn’t move. He looked up, she hadn’t even noticed that he’d stopped. Suddenly he realized that she was making a low, repetitive noise. He moved up her body, closer to her head … she was humming, humming! She still hadn’t realized that he’d stopped. He dropped his head onto the pillow next to hers. She turned to look at him, confusion evident in her expression.

“This is no good for you, is it?” he asked. She had a blank expression. “You don’t feel anything? Not even when I touch you down here?” he asked, sliding his hand between her legs, “or kiss you here?” he asked nibbling on her neck. She didn’t respond. Any other woman would have at least tilted their head against him as he nuzzled her neck. He was stupefied. He considered himself to be a damn good lay … he always took care of his partner’s needs first. What was going on?

“Jessica, I need an answer from you … this isn’t going to get any better for you unless you tell me exactly what’s going on. Tell me, what do you feel when I do this?” he asked probing expertly between her legs. Jessica closed her legs around his arm, effectively halting its motion. “That bad?” he asked. Jessica didn’t reply, she just turned her eyes back to the ceiling.

“No Jessica,” he said taking her chin and turning her face back to him. “You don’t just act like I’m a door to door salesman and ignore me! I need you to speak, and now! Isn’t there something that would make this feel good for you? Some sort of story? Like, I don’t know, you’re walking down the street and some completely gorgeous stranger accosts you and does things to you that make you want to melt on the spot?"

Jessica looked at him like he was crazy.

“Oh come on!” he demanded suddenly enthused by his mission. He propped his head up with his fist his elbow next to her pillow. “I have a zillion scenarios in my head. Sometimes you’re the cute lifeguard on the beach who has just saved me from certain death in the deep blue sea. I have great fun getting the sand out of all your crevices … then there’s the nurse, the teacher, the policewoman, if you can believe that! Come on Jess, who is it for you? I’ll be that guy. I don’t have to be me. I don’t care who the hell you fuck in your head, so long as you get off … come on,” he said patting his hand against her cheek, progressively harder. It seemed as though she’d completely phased out. She began blinking, and then suddenly sat up, pulling her knees to her stomach. Scott sat up beside her.

“You go somewhere else, don’t you?” he asked disappointed yet glad to be getting somewhere. “Jess, you need to talk to me, because now that I know, I’m not going to let this go. Somehow we’re going to find what’s right for you and for me. I’m not going to be satisfied until you’re screaming at the top of your lungs, begging for more, so fess up.”

Jessica looked at him for a moment and then looked away.

“Well?” he asked again, “Unless you start giving me some info, I’m going to have to go through all the possible scenarios. There’s the strangers having sex in a movie theatre, there’s the elevator bit, there’s the wake-up sex …”

Jessica flinched, and looked over at Scott.

“Absolutely not that one!” she said so emphatically he wondered whether she’d been fantasizing all along. Maybe he was misinterpreting her body language? Impossible!

“Alright, no sleeping sex … what instead? Tell me Jess …”

Jessica slowly shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said.

“So, you feel nothing, nadda, zilch?” Scott asked, hoping it wasn’t true.

Jessica shook her head again, “Nothing,” she confirmed. Scott sat in silence, staring at her. On the one hand he was thrilled that she was speaking to him about it, yet he had dreaded that answer. What now?

“Alright, “ he said, “I can work with that … I’m going to get you some books,” he said an idea coming to him, “just between you and me. Maybe in one of them you’ll find that something that gets you going. Okay? Will you read them for me?”

“Scott … “Jessica began.

“All you have to do is read them. I promise, I will not touch you that way again until you find something that works for you. Okay?”

Jessica exhaled. “Alright,” she said, “just don’t get your hopes up,” she said, “because, I doubt I’ll find anything, I think I’m just broken.”

“Jessica!” Scott exclaimed, taking her in his arms, feeling like the biggest heel in history, “you are not broken!” He kissed the top of her head as he held her as tight as he could. “You just haven’t found your thing yet. Hey, maybe it involves horseback riding! You sure get excited about that!”

Jessica looked at him. “Do you think Riley will really let me?”

“If Riley said so, he will. So long as you live up to your end of the deal.”

“Hmmm.” Jessica said turning her eyes to the ceiling again.

“Hmmm?” Scott asked.

“I just don’t get Riley and Angus, they were so different today, so calm. Once I realized what I’d done, I thought for sure I was going to be in trouble. But nothing happened.”

“Probably because Jim had given you permission to ride Ebony, I think they didn’t mind so much.”

“I guess …” Jessica said still staring at the ceiling. There was something about her tone …

“You guess what?”

“It turns out that Jim didn’t really give me permission.”

“What?” Scott asked.

“Well, I tried to ask, and I guess there was a snake that distracted Jim, I wanted to ride so badly …”

Why was she telling him this? Scott wondered what sort of scheme she had figured out. And Jim had lied? What the hell?

Scott rolled onto Jessica, straddling her, he pinned her hands above her head. He stared down at her. He didn’t like this, he felt like he was being played somehow. Jessica stared back at him in surprise. He struggled with his emotions, wondered what he should do next when he remembered something Jim had said to Josh and him. They had been asking him how he could be so damn sure that Jessica was being honest with him, when he’d said, “she tells me things, things that let me know I can trust her. When it happens to you, you’ll know what I mean.”

Was this it?

“Why did you tell me that? I could go to Riley right now and tell him the truth. Not only would you not be going horseback riding with me … ever, you’d lose all your privileges and probably get a good beating out of it too!”

Fear replaced Jessica’s surprise. She looked trapped, terrified, and …. betrayed? Had she expected duplicity from him? “Well?” he demanded.

“It … it just came out. I’d tried to ask, I thought I had asked … but Jim said that he never really answered me. I guess I thought … it was just a misunderstanding. I didn’t think you’d get angry. If you don’t want me to tell you next time, I won’t.”

They stared at each other. She’d put him into a hell of a position. If he said something to Riley, he was betraying her. If he didn’t, he was betraying Riley and the other men. Plus, he was making himself her accomplice. It seemed that Jim had already gone down that road. Well, there was only one thing to do. Use it to his advantage. Two could play at this game.

“No, you weren’t wrong. I’ll keep this to myself, and I appreciate your honesty. I guess my only problem is knowing whether to trust you or not. How can I be certain that you aren’t just using me?”

“Scott, I wouldn’t lie to you!” Jessica said as if the possibility that she would was completely outrageous.

“Of course not,” he said, trying to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. “Just like the time you didn’t pretend to choke on a grape so you could break my nose with your head.”

Jessica ducked her head. Of course he wouldn’t believe her!

“Or all the other zillion times you manipulated me into a position of vulnerability.” Scott continued. “No, this time, I’m sure you wouldn’t lie to me, but I would be more certain of it if I felt a stronger connection with you … if I felt that you really enjoyed being with me, felt passionate about me …”

Jessica swallowed. “Scott, I don’t know how to …”

“If,” Scott interrupted, “you were to really try and find some way to enjoy yourself with me … find some way to enjoy it, I’d feel like I could trust you.”

Jessica looked lost. Scott felt a pang of guilt. What if she were being honest? What would the advantage be to her taking a risk on telling him the truth? She could’ve lost everything in a split second.

“Just read the books that I bring you, and try, okay? That’s all I ask.”

“Okay,” she said, but still had the deer in the headlights look. He realized that he was squeezing her wrists, hard. He let go, and slid off of her. Lying down beside her he stared at the ceiling.

What was wrong with him? He was looking for signs that he could trust her and here she’d thrown a really big sign in his lap, and all he could do was see it as proof that she was plotting something. Christ. Well, he’d take a chance on her, but if she pulled a fast one on him, he’d make her pay, one way or another.

“Come here Jess,” he said turning toward her and pulling her to him. “I appreciate your honesty. I’m just tired I guess, and frustrated. Just promise me that you’ll do your best to find something that turns you on, please.”

“All right,” Jessica mumbled.

“Now that sounds convincing!” Scott said. “At least try to say it in a tone that inspires me to think that you’ll really try.”

“But what if there isn’t anything?” Jessica asked in quiet voice.

“There is.” Scott answered. “You’re not broken Jessica. You’ll … we’ll find it.”

“But how will I know I’ve found it?” Jessica asked

“Believe me Jess, it’ll be obvious. It’ll feel good, really good, and you won’t be able to get enough of it.” Jessica grunted in disbelief. “It’s true. It’ll be an all consuming passion … you’ll have your hands all over me, you’ll be begging for more! I’ll have to hide from you, just to get some rest … I’m exhausted just thinking about it.”

Jessica giggled as Scott brought his hand to his chin and pretended to be reconsidering the whole thing. He liked the sound of that laugh. He pulled Jessica closer to him and kissed the top of her head.

“You’ll like it Jessica, I promise. Now, let’s go to sleep before I have to back down on my promise to not touch you in all the places that I really want to touch you.”

He went to the bedroom door, locked it, put away the key, and turned off the lights. Getting back into bed, he wrapped his arms around Jessica, and tried to imagine what a ninety year old woman would look like naked.

‘Yup, that did it.’ Scott thought to himself as he closed his eyes and shuddered.

Jessica lay in the dark, listening to Scott snore. Why had she told Scott the truth? She hadn’t done it intentionally, it had just come out. What if he changed his mind and went to Riley with the truth? Everything would be lost. And now she was stuck with the impossible task of finding a way to enjoy Scott’s violation of her. Couldn’t it be enough that she’d found a way to tolerate it? Apparently not. For some reason Scott seemed to believe that she was supposed to be enjoying his poking and prodding. What was she going to do? Things were moving so quickly, and getting better, that Jessica couldn’t stand to consider going back to how things had been. God, her family must be in heaven looking down at her with disgust. She felt tears pool in her eyes. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said and blissfully felt sleep overcome her.

“No!” the cry was so loud Scott jumped in the bed. He opened his eyes to see Jessica writhing on the bed. “Mom! Mom! Dad! Please, please, don’t let them take me, don’t leave me alone!” she screamed and a wail punctuated the sentence.

“Jessica! Jessica!” Scott was saying, taking her by the shoulders and shaking. “Wake-up!”

“I want to go home!” Jessica cried, “Please … I want to go home!”

“Shhh, go to sleep,” Scott whispered, wishing these damn dreams would just go away. Every night, for the past two years, Jessica cried and had nightmares. When was it ever going to change? She fought less now … he could touch her without getting a broken nose, but her emotional pain never seemed to diminish.

“Marcus, Cain! Jeffery … Jeffery! I’m sorry, I’m so sorry! ” She screamed and bolted upright. “They’re dead! They’re all dead!”

“Jessica,” Scott said attempting to sound calm and comforting. He began to pull her into his arms. She resisted. “Come here Jessica, it’s just a bad dream … that’s all …”

“No,” she said shaking her head and planting her hands on his chest, pushing him away as hard as she could. “They’re all dead, and you killed them!”

“Jessica, listen to me!” Scott gripped her forearms and shook her, “You’re having a bad dream … go back to sleep!”

“Mom,” Jessica muttered as she fell against him. And in the next minute, she was fast asleep.

Scott’s heart pounded in his rib cage. Jessica lay limp against him. Suddenly he felt like he couldn’t breath. He lay her down beside him, and got up from the bed. He paced.

Jesus Christ! Even though she almost always said the same thing every time she had a nightmare, Scott just couldn’t get past the ‘and you killed them!’ part. Funny, since he had killed them … but night after night of being reminded of it was too much. Sexually frustrated, and now this … he needed a drink.

He unlocked the set of handcuffs he had hanging on the bed post, handcuffed Jessica’s hand to the post, locked the bedroom door behind him, and made his way to the bar the in the living room. Unlocking it he extracted a bottle of whiskey and he didn’t even bother looking for a glass. He took four good pulls from the bottle … ‘screw it’, he thought as he re-locked the cabinet and took the bottle back to the bedroom with him. If nothing else the booze would help him fall to sleep.

He uncuffed Jessica, not even wanting to imagine how she’d react if she awoke to find herself cuffed, and got in on his side of the bed.

It had been a messy job that day … lots of chaos, lots of blood … but for some reason the only thing that really stuck in his mind was the memory of the young girl screaming in the back seat of the limo … Scott shuddered. He put the whiskey bottle to his lips, tilted his head and guzzled. A warmth spread through him, and he began to feel sleepy. As he drifted off, he remembered that girl again. As he came closer to her in his memory, he could make out what she was screaming as she looked at the corpses around her … “Mom! Dad! Marcus! Cain! Jeffery!”

Anonymous readerReport

2014-04-29 05:23:21
Hey JadenL this is really an awesome story, please continue!

Anonymous readerReport

2014-04-11 06:41:51
I love love love your story.... Can hardly put it down, can't wait to hear what happens next!!

Anonymous readerReport

2014-03-27 11:40:13
Great chapter Jaden!! I love the direction that is chapter is taking the story.. can't wait see what the next chapter will bring! Thanks for directing me to this site so I could read the third chapter, you're worth your weight in gold! Xx Emma

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