An imprisoned cowboy. An empowered woman.
When true love is forbidden, opening their hearts could destroy them both…
Chained and enslaved, Jake Nichols is convinced he’ll die alone. In this new order where men are stripped of all power, he endures brutal torture at the hands of his female captor. But when he’s hired out to build a ranch home for an outspoken beauty, his dreams of escape transform into visions of passion.
Monica Avery struggles to fill her heart in a loveless society. With marriage outlawed and romantic partners reduced to pawns, she’s given up hope of finding her soul mate. But the rugged rancher building her shelter awakens her deeply buried desires.
As the project comes together, Monica discovers a kindred spirit in the tenderhearted Jake. But despite their growing attraction, he still belongs to a cruel woman who’d rather see him dead than free.
Can Monica save Jake, or will their love lead to a tragic tomorrow?
Targeted Age Group:: 18+
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I got the idea for the series from studying American history and looking at how people treat each other. I wrote the first several books of the series before I even thought of writing Jake's Redemption. As the story took shape, I felt that Jake needed to have his story told in depth too. So I sat down and started writing.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Most of my characters are either loosely based on real people like actors, models, someone I saw on the street. There are also bits and pieces of several people I know strewn throughout the story, but in essence, they are all their own people.
JAKE NICHOLS KNELT in defeat on the cold ground of the mountain meadow, directly beside his best friend, Bret Masters. Defenseless, with their fingers laced together behind their heads, their eyes scanned the surroundings for any escape from the Raiders who had attacked their camp in the early morning hours.
Both men scowled up at their captor, a woman Bret had foolishly—and against Jake’s repeated warnings—loved to distraction. Jake risked a quick glance at his friend, knowing the pain Bret must be suffering in the wake of her betrayal. He felt the bite of it too, only for a different reason. Bret was family, and what hurt him, hurt Jake. His protective nature made him long to shield Bret from the misery this woman inflicted.
“I don’t care for you,” Amy had said only moments ago, indifferent to the devastation Jake saw in every line of Bret’s granite-hard face. What made her confession even worse was the bit she added about only wanting to use his body.
“You do have such a pretty face, but no brains in your head,” she went on, and then laughed at Bret’s seething look. His expression made Jake ache for his friend, and he silently hoped she had nothing more to torment him with. But Amy wasn’t done with Bret yet.
“How could you think any self-respecting woman would want you for anything more than your gorgeous face and hard body?” she asked, not waiting for a reply. “A decent woman would never accept you as an equal. Any woman who would is worse than the slave you will shortly become.”
A deep growl rumbled up from Bret’s chest, and to Jake’s surprise, Bret lunged to his feet and attacked her. Seeing an opportunity, Jake and all the other prisoners immediately joined him in a last, desperate attempt to gain their freedom. Their female adversaries, however, had a new genetic advantage. It may have taken a few seconds for the hysterical-strength to kick in, but once it did, the fight, strength-wise, was no longer in the men’s favor.
The skirmish didn’t last long, but in a brief moment before it ended, Jake turned to see Amy about to drive a long-bladed knife into his best friend’s back. Jake didn’t think, he moved, tackling Amy as her weapon plunged downward from its high arch. Amy tried to wiggle away from him, but he held on, desperate to keep her from harming Bret.
“Run!” He heard Bret’s frantic shout. “Run!” The sound of pounding feet and continued battle assaulted Jake’s ears. He tried to roll away from Amy, but now she held on to him. On his hands and knees, he jerked his arm to shake her loose and follow his friend into the forest, but she wouldn’t let go.
Pain bloomed sharp and bright in his ribs as a booted foot slammed into him—once, twice—and he fell. The boot kept coming. He curled up, protecting his vulnerable areas, but his assailant still landed several blows to his head and back.
“Enough!” Amy’s voice rang out, and the assault ended. Jake spit blood from his mouth and struggled to catch his breath. The dizziness in his head and the stabbing ache in his side told him getting to his feet might be harder than it was a few minutes ago.
Definitely broke a rib or two, he thought, tonguing his split lip and rapidly cataloging the pain in the rest of his body.
“How many do we still have?” Amy shouted to someone nearby.
“Ten got away,” a woman said. “With this one,” Jake assumed she was pointing at him, “we still have twenty-seven men, along with some traitorous women and children too.”
“Is there a tall man, black hair, green eyes, very good-looking, among those we recaptured?” Amy asked, describing Bret to a tee.
“That sappy, pretty-boy son of a bitch,” Amy swore, undoubtedly meaning Bret. “I should’ve known he’d try something like that.” She cursed again.
“You know their hiding places now,” the other woman said. “We’ll catch them and their friends too.”
Jake and Bret had come across Amy by accident—or so they had thought at the time—almost seven months before as they traveled the mountains, hunting for food. She’d been hungry and in need of aid. Unsurprisingly, she took an immediate interest in Bret. Although he had a mistrusting nature, she spared little time wrapping his love-starved heart around her finger. Jake had never liked her and the two friends argued about her more than once, but despite his misgivings about Amy, Jake refused to alienate his boyhood friend. Yet as a result of her relationship with Bret, she now knew the location of most of their woodland hiding places.
“That’s true,” Amy replied to the other woman’s comment. She tapped her chin with her index finger as if considering, and then she glanced down at Jake.
He had lain very still during their interaction, hoping against hope they might forget about him.
No such luck.
“And you,” she said coming toward him. “You—”
He didn’t give her a chance to finish; he had a fairly good idea of what came next. Instead, he ignored his dizziness and the pain in his chest as he surged to his feet, pushed her aside, and ran for the trees. He’d made it six feet when he heard a crack behind him. Then something hard and thin snapped around his neck and yanked him backward. He saw stars as his head and back slammed to the ground, sending a new wave of misery through his abused body. He groaned, trying to place what just happened, and then Amy was leaning over him.
She jammed her knee into his chest, and pain shot through his damaged ribs. He lifted his arms to shove her away, but the leathery rope wrapped around his neck yanked at him again, choking off his air. Desperate, needing to get her off him, needing to breathe, he tugged at the cord strangling him. His eyes widened as Amy grabbed him by the hair and tilted his head back to expose his throat. He reached for her again, but the minute the edge of her knife grazed his flesh, his arms collapsed to the ground and he froze.
The binding around his neck loosened and fell away as Amy glared into his face. Blessed air came freely, but the simple act of breathing caused his ribs to twinge more.
With the suffocating rope gone, his hands automatically lifted off the ground to defend himself. Amy’s knife cut a tiny fraction deeper. Blood tickled his neck as the warm liquid trickled over his cool skin, and he froze once more, afraid to even breathe.
“Uh-uh,” Amy warned as she increased the pressure slightly, widening the gash a bit more and digging the point of her blade into his Adam’s apple.
His mouth went dry. Is she going to slit my throat?
“Looks like Bret didn’t value your friendship as much as you thought, huh, Jake?” Amy said with a nasty smile, her dark brown eyes glittering down at him.
Jake cringed inwardly. He knew that wasn’t the case. In the chaos, Bret probably hadn’t even realized Jake had been captured, and wouldn’t until he failed to show at their rendezvous point. But her implication twisted at his guts nonetheless.
A second woman stepped up behind Amy, coiling the long black length of a bullwhip in her hand.
So, that’s what was strangling me…I should’ve known.
“You fucked up my plans, Jake, just as much as your damned friend,” Amy hissed at him when he didn’t respond to her earlier comment. “If it weren’t for you, he’d be mine and you’d both make me rich. Now, I have to settle for you and those other losers we caught today.”
“What’re—you going—to do with me?” He stifled a groan for his halting speech and glared daggers at the woman hovering over him.
“Oh, I think you know what we do with captured men,” Amy chuckled. She tilted her head, and a strand of her amber-blonde hair fell into her face as her eyes raked over him.
“You know, Jake,” she said reflectively, “you’re a good-looking guy. If Bret hadn’t been around, you would’ve been my target. It’s only next to a man like him that you’d seem second best. But then, you were always suspicious of me, weren’t you? Maybe once you’ve been trained, I’ll pay you another visit.”
He clamped his jaws tight and didn’t respond, but his mind was in overdrive. He wanted to fight, but moving meant death. He didn’t want to know what it was like to bleed to death from a severed artery. Instead, he scowled all the more. If he wanted to live, it was all he could do.
The woman beside Amy crouched down, but he couldn’t see what she was doing. The next thing he knew, he jumped as a needle jammed into his hip and something injected into his body.
Ah, shit… He knew what that was; he’d heard dozens of stories about it but luckily had never had to deal with the drug, until now.
It started working almost instantaneously, driving up his anxiety level, making him shake and cringe. A few seconds passed, while Amy’s gaze bore into his, and the effect of the chemical doubled.
Oh, God, this is worse than I thought it would be. He had never felt so weak and vulnerable in his life.
“Now,” Amy said as she removed the blade from his throat and stood. She tucked the knife in her boot and then plopped her rear down on his chest, knowing he would be too terrified, thanks to the drug, to do anything to save himself. “What shall I do with you?” She ran a finger down the side of his face.
He flinched away.
You could let me go, he thought and tried to force out the sarcastic remark, but the substance surging through him wouldn’t allow it.
“I think you deserve a particularly horrible punishment for always interfering in my plans with Bret,” she said, answering her own question while tapping his bearded chin with one finger. The slight contact amped up his anxiety, and he shivered. “He may have listened to you complain about me, but he loved me.” Her derisive tone told him what she thought about that. “He would’ve never turned me out the way you kept telling him to do. And now, you’ve ruined my chance to have him how I always wanted him: in chains. So, how shall I make you pay for all of it?”
Jake’s body shook with fear, both real and chemically induced. Amy was far more lethal than he had once thought.
“I know just the place you should go,” she continued with a bright smile, as if she’d come up with a brilliant idea. “I have an acquaintance near here, a woman who’s exceptionally adept at training men to be perfect little slaves. I’ll bet she’d jump at the chance to make you a willing breeder. You’ll make her a lot of money. Once she pays me a high price for you that is.”
“P-Please…” Jake pleaded involuntarily, the drug wreaking havoc with his willpower. No matter how much he wanted to resist begging, he couldn’t stop now that he had started. “P-Please…” he muttered again, his voice shaking while fighting the drug—and losing. “Let me go…”
“Darla’s going to tear you to pieces, Jake,” she told him, her sinister smile sending waves of dread prickling up and down his spine. “A little bit at a time, she’ll peel away your pride—”
A loud thud from down the hall jolted Jake’s mind back to the present. Darkness surrounded his sweating, trembling body as terror from his nightmarish recollection lingered in his mind. As much as he hated the bleak confines of his concrete cell, he was thankful to be alone. No one expecting anything. No one demanding he perform acts that made him want to retch. No one hurting him. He waited for the sound in the hallway to repeat, but when it didn’t, he exhaled in a grateful rush and ran an unsteady hand over his face.
Why can’t I stop obsessing about what happened that day?
He slumped against the cold stone walls of his tiny prison cell, staring into the midnight-black nothingness. Scurrying sounds of small creatures sounded nearby, and in the distance he heard the soft sobs of another slave. A burning wetness welled in Jake’s eyes, and a thick ache formed in the back of his throat for the other man’s suffering. Or maybe it was for his own. He shook his head, wiped at his face again, and tried to block out the other man’s weeping.
The concrete chamber in which he sat was smaller than the walk-in closet in the tiny two-bedroom apartment he’d rented years ago. That room had seemed huge back then; this one felt claustrophobic. He had enough room to lie down and turn over, but that was about it.
His first frantic attempt to find a way out yielded nothing. Several times since, his hands had methodically slid over the wet, rough stones of his cell. His fingers dug into the concrete joints, every nook and cranny, until they hurt; still, he found no way out. Even if he had, he couldn’t have gone anywhere. The chains connected to the heavy shackles around his neck, wrists, and ankles anchored him to the wall, but he kept trying. So many times, sweat had trickled down his face and chest as he gritted his teeth, his fingers gripping the chains with a desperate strength. He strained every muscle in his body, but after hours of repeated yanking, he released them with a despondent cry and sprawled on the damp floor in exhausted defeat.
The lump in his throat returned. Would he ever see the sun again? Ever see his friends? But then, only one of those remained. Bret Masters.
He sighed and rubbed his forehead, attempting to ease the ache caused by thinking about Bret. He dropped his hand and sighed again. The long story of their friendship had led Jake to this fate. A part of him blamed Bret for everything that had happened to him in this place, which was unfair, but rationalizing didn’t stop him from being angry.
His fingers unconsciously moved to his chest. They kneaded rhythmically, trying to release the knot of despair tangled around his heart. In constant battle, resentment warred with the brotherly regard he still harbored for Bret, and the victor was, as yet, undecided.
Jake rubbed at his temples and shivered. This damn room is freezing.
Even in the spring, the room was damp and cool. Of course, being naked all the time didn’t help, but his Mistress, Darla Cain, couldn’t be bothered with clothing her slaves. Only when required to work in the cold and wet or the sweltering heat were they given the minimal basics to cover their nudity. The rest of the time, they were all bare and vulnerable to whatever their Mistress wanted from them. Or what she wanted to do to them. After witnessing much of her cruelty personally, Jake suspected she hated men—she took too much enjoyment from their agony not to. Adept at causing pain, she tormented her captives, changed them, ruling them utterly. When she tired of them, they were tossed aside and left to molder as Jake was doing now.
Jake had to admit, Amy’s choice of punishment had been well made. The things his Mistress did to him were terrible—demoralizing and humiliating—and he didn’t want to remember, but he had nothing else to do here in the lonely, oppressive darkness.
As the memories came, his mind flinched from the incident that had landed him in this cell.
Piercing agony burned across his back, and he screamed. Over and over he screamed, but he refused to give them what they demanded, would not provide them their sick pleasure.
A moan escaped him. He shivered at the memory of his short-lived rebellion, hating himself more for his eventual submittal, for being weak, and for the loss that eventually came of it.
The act that followed his failing though—when his Mistress tried to force him into another vile game for her entertainment—that one he relished.
“You sick bitch!” he had roared at his Mistress as he surged against the three guards who blocked his way. Fear trembled in the back of his mind, but reckless rage kept it there. “I’m going to fucking kill you!”
When alarm crossed his Mistress’ face, his lips twitched upward as satisfaction flooded his system. Good, she’s scared, he thought bitterly. She should be! Then his muscles tightened and he redoubled his efforts.
He lunged with all his strength, his gaze locked on his target, determined to reach the red-headed bitch and end her for good. His bigger, heavier body drove the guards back several steps before more joined in. He swung at them, but the chains on his wrists hindered his movement. Again, he gathered his diminishing strength and strove to reach the cause of all his pain and fury. He surged against the human barrier, but too many bodies now stood between them. He hadn’t moved fast enough. Hysterical-strength kicked in, and the women guarding his Mistress grew stronger.
A sharp yank on the chain attached to the collar around his neck wrenched him off his feet. He landed on his back, knocking the breath from his lungs and cracking his head on the hard floor. Dazed, he blinked, and then saw the next blow coming. The end of his own lead chain slammed across his heaving chest with a loud thud. Ribs vibrating with pain, he grunted and rolled into a ball as the next strike fell, knowing he had lost the fight. Knowing his Mistress’ treatment of him would now grow much, much worse.
And it did.
Instead of preventing his Mistress from ever forcing something so terrible on him or anyone else again, the guards had stopped him, beat him severely, and dragged him down here. For hours, he’d lain almost lifeless where they dropped him, licking his wounds and berating himself. He didn’t know how long ago that was now. Days, weeks, months—they all blended into one. Regret for his inability to end his Mistress’ reign of terror left him feeling hollow and weighted down by the enormity of his failure. Though, if he’d succeeded, they would’ve killed him, disappointment still pierced his heart like a flaming arrow.
But that first act, the unthinkable thing his Mistress forced him to do—the one that led to his futile assault and lonely imprisonment—that event haunted him.
“Leave it alone,” he growled into the abyss of his cell, his heart heavy in his chest. “You can’t change anything now.”
But he couldn’t leave the memory alone.
Her soft brown eyes filled with terror and tears.
Her trembling body, cringing against him.
Quiet whimpers wrenching at his heart.
Her misplaced trust in him.
Jake’s hands curled into fists and he shook his head, the recollection tearing at his insides, killing him slowly.
I was supposed to protect her.
A sob bubbled into his throat, but he swallowed it down and rushed to his feet as self-loathing roared in his ears. His chains rattled along the rock as he paced, five steps one way, five steps back. A path should’ve worn through the stone by now from all my pacing, he thought.
He stopped at the door imprisoning him. His hands clenched tightly at his sides, and in his helpless anguish, he hammered on the steel with his fists.
“Let me out!” he bellowed in a cracked voice, welcoming the pain in his knuckles, his hands, his wrists. “God damn you. Let me out!”
His cries and the dull pounding of his fists ricocheted through the long corridor outside, the echoes mocking him with their freedom. The cries of the other slave stilled as inarticulate roars of fury ripped through Jake’s aching throat, every muscle in his body quivering as he released the rage inside him.
You’re being stupid! a voice in his head shouted. Stop it!
His throbbing fists ceased pummeling the immovable metal, and his hands splayed out over its cold surface.
His forehead fell against steel with a muffled thud.
Waves of shudders crashed through him.
Despair, like a living thing, coiled tightly around his heart, and a sob finally escaped him.
Squeezing his eyes closed, he concentrated on breathing.
I will not give them any more.
No more blood. No more sweat. No more tears.
Pushing away from the cell door, he wiped his hand over his face, brushed at his damp lashes, and sat back down.
Maybe Bret had it right all these years, he thought. No more trust either.
He shook in the aftermath of emotion. Or perhaps he should blame the drug. He was more than a day overdue for his booster of the nasty stuff, so the fear and submission it caused were minimal now. In nearly two years, he’d never gone so long without an injection. He wondered if they figured his obedience didn’t matter because he was chained, locked up, and half-starved.
His fingers rubbed at his chest again. Still sore from the beating they had given him after his ill-fated, rage-induced attack, he felt weak and tired, and he didn’t care anymore.
Again, resentment burned in his chest.
“Run!” Bret had screamed that day, and—after all they’d been through together and all Jake had done for him over the years—Bret had left him behind to be captured and enslaved.
You know that’s not fair, a part of Jake murmured, the familiar war waging inside him. Despite their agreement not to attempt to rescue each other, the fact that Bret didn’t even try made Jake unreasonably angry.
“He couldn’t have saved you from this,” Jake mumbled into the gloom, “and you would hate yourself worse if he had gotten captured or killed by trying. Let it go.”
The sound of the soft voice filtering through the steel door made him jump. Only a few minutes had passed since he howled his rage at the world. She must’ve heard him screaming because she sounded uneasy. Not nervous or afraid, just uncertain of what she would find when she opened the door.
The voice belonged to one of the handful of halfway-decent guards working for his Mistress. The guard’s name was Hailey Tate, and there weren’t enough like her. She talked about leaving this place one day to move into her own home with her own slaves. Though he didn’t know her well, he would miss the kindness she had shown him and the other slaves. When she eventually did leave, there would be one fewer of the kindly guards working here, just one more face forgotten.
He didn’t answer her call. They would come in whether he wanted them to or not, and though she had been kind to him in the past, he would no longer cooperate. They could fill him up with the fear drug, beat him unconscious, but he wouldn’t do one more thing for them. Or so he kept telling himself. Trying to stay alive for the hope of escape was like slow, agonizing torture, and he would not do that to himself, not anymore—unless they dosed him with the drug again. Then its effects would leave him no choice but to submit.
A key fit into the lock. The mechanism clicked, and the heavy door slowly swung open on squeaky hinges.
“Jake?” Hailey called again, but he refused to respond.
He closed his eyes and turned away from the intolerable brightness coming from the lantern she carried. After sitting in the dark for so long, even the dim illumination burned.
“Jake? Are you all right?”
He chuckled, an unpleasant sound bouncing off the walls of his small stone prison. “Well,” he croaked, “if you count being beaten, starved, and chained to a wall as all right, then I’m just dandy.”
“I know it’s been a while. I tried to get some food to you yesterday,” she said as she crouched down beside him, “but there was a problem.”
He glared at her but didn’t speak. Even through his hurt and anger, he appreciated her aid, especially since she didn’t have to offer it.
“Someone’s here to see you,” she said, changing the subject.
“There’s no one out there I want to see.”
“It’s one of the council members.”
Jake laughed, still bitter. He looked down at his filthy, naked body and reached up to scratch his bearded cheek. “I’m not in any condition to perform sexual favors. Send her away.”
Hailey frowned and glanced over her shoulder at the open doorway.
“Keep your voice down, Jake,” she hissed, leaning closer to him, her tone hardening as she spoke. “And mind what you say. I might not agree with all the rules here, but I will enforce them if I must.”
He cringed inwardly as his last comment replayed in his head. He didn’t intend for it to, but it did come out like a command. A shiver of dread slid up his spine. Hailey might not punish him for that, but he didn’t know about his visitor if she had overheard. Quickly, he changed the focus of their murmured discussion.
“I’m going to die down here, Hailey.” He couldn’t help the forlorn note in his voice.
“Don’t use my name, Jake.”
“Sorry. Ms. Tate. My Mistress doesn’t care if I live or die, and I will die down here, just like all the others.”
“I don’t think so,” she corrected, and he aimed another sharp glance in her direction.
“No. That’s what your visitor’s here about.”
His brows twitched together in confusion. “What?”
“She has an offer for you,” Hailey told him. “If you give me your word you won’t try to harm her, I won’t restrain you as she ordered me to do.”
Ordered. He knew who ordered that: his Mistress. A slave attacking a fellow council member in Darla’s house would make her look bad, but even if he failed, the effort might also set him free from his unbearable existence. Is it worth it?
Jake sighed. “She won’t take it well if she finds out you disregarded her orders.”
“Do you plan to try to harm your visitor?”
He stared at Hailey and then shook his head. “I don’t want to hurt anyone, even though you all will hurt me.”
That sounded sufficiently noble, he mocked himself. What happened to not giving them any more?
“Just do it,” he said when she didn’t move or respond, not caring how his words could be construed.
It didn’t matter anyway.
She didn’t argue, and soon his wrists were locked together above his head, connected to a steel ring embedded in the wall. She glanced down at him, still seated on the cold stones.
“Take the offer, Jake,” she whispered as she bent over him, and his eyes snapped up to hers in surprise. He opened his mouth, but she straightened and stepped out of the room before he could speak.
An older woman entered. She was impressive; her gray-streaked black hair, pulled into a bun at the nape of her neck, exposed a pretty face, now lined with wisdom. She wore jeans and a lightweight white work shirt. She appeared stern, but a kindness resided in her amber eyes that calmed his initial fear. When she smiled, her whole face changed, and he relaxed even more, before reminding himself to stay on guard.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Nichols,” she said in a clear voice.
Jake only nodded and stared at the floor.
It’s what they expected of slaves.
Whatever she wants, I will not give it.
“My name is Jewel Stewart. I’m a member of the section’s governing council, and I have a few questions for you.”
He flicked a withering glare at her and looked away again, but still refused to answer.
She paused, and he could feel her eyes assessing him like ants crawling over his skin. He wanted to squirm under her perusal, but he forced himself to remain still.
At length, she spoke again. “Do you like living here?”
Astonished by the idiotic question, he met her gaze and barked out a rude answer before he could stop himself. “That’s a stupid question.”
“Does that mean yes or no?”
Is she dense?
“I didn’t think so,” she said and smiled again as she joined him on the floor, sitting directly across from him. Her actions, disarming as they were clearly meant to be, shocked him too. The floor was filthy, and the room stank from his unwashed body and his waste—which hadn’t been emptied from the overflowing bucket in the corner since before they last fed him three days ago.
What’s she up to?
“Tell me about yourself, Mr. Nichols.”
“What do you want to know?” Curious now, he told himself that talking required nothing from him. Besides, he had been alone too long. Seeing and speaking with another human being was…nice.
“How did you come to be here?”
He scowled at her. “The same way every other man came to be enslaved.”
“A raiding party took you?”
“We fought a war and lost.”
“I meant something a little more recently.”
Jake hesitated. This was his most civil conversation with a woman since before the war, which sent people running for their lives while its destruction leveled cities and towns across the globe. Again, a pang of regret twisted inside him. So many had died in the war that destroyed their world and altered its social conventions completely. Women, no longer considered the weaker sex, controlled everything now. Men were their slaves, thanks to losing a second civil war they foolishly started themselves.
Raiding parties, like the one that had captured Jake, traveled into the mountains searching for runaways, uncaptured men, and the women who helped them, to sell at auction. In Jake’s case, the Raiders had help in acquiring him.
Another reason for his resentment of Bret Masters.
“A woman fooled my friend and betrayed us,” he finally responded to her question. “The Raiders showed up, I was taken, and sold at the Auction Hall to Dar…uh…Miss Cain. When she got tired of abusing me, she locked me up down here and left me to rot.” He sounded angry and bitter, but he didn’t care.
“Tell me what you did before the wars. What kind of work did you do?”
He glared at her, wondering again what her game was, but he saw no reason not to tell her. Giving her the answers was far preferable to another beating.
“I worked in construction for a number of years,” he said, “and did some ranching for several more after that.”
“So, you’re trained in building houses and caring for livestock?”
“Yeah…” he said warily.
Jewel asked for more details about the work he did and he told her, but his suspicions amped up his anxiety level once more. He sat taller, his whole body and consciousness on alert. What the hell does my work history have to do with anything? No one had asked him any of this before. No one cared.
“That’s quite a resume,” she said, smiling again.
Jake grunted in reply and averted his gaze.
“Would you like a chance to leave here for a few months?”
His eyes snapped up to her face. He frowned as his heart rate sped up and he waited for the punchline. Was she screwing with his head like Darla? Dangling a carrot in front of him, getting his hopes up, only to snatch it away again?
“It’s not a trick,” she told him, apparently reading his thoughts. “There’s a job in need of your particular skills if you’re interested.”
“What kind of job?” he asked, still cautious. This seemed too good to be true. “And where?”
“A friend of one of the other council members is building a new home,” Jewel told him. “Her ranch foreman, who also happened to be responsible for the construction, had an accident and died. She has a number of decent workers, but no one with enough experience to oversee the work now. She asked the council if we knew of anyone who could fill in, and your name came up.”
He croaked out a rusty laugh. No way did his Mistress tell anyone about him. She wanted him to suffer. Jewel smiled when he said as much.
“I didn’t say it was Darla.”
He scowled at her again. Is this for real?
“The job would last about six months or so,” she said as if he’d asked. “Do you want it?”
He stared mutely at the floor. Could he trust her or believe her story? What if this was just another one of Darla’s mind games?
He was silent so long she must’ve assumed he wasn’t interested, because she stood up and dusted herself off. “I’m sorry we couldn’t come to an agreement,” she murmured and stepped toward the door.
“Wait!” The chains connected to his wrist shackles rattled against the wall as he abruptly sat forward.
She turned back to him and looked down into his upturned face, her expression impatient now. “You have something to say?”
He took a deep breath, wavered, and then dived in. “What’s the woman like? The one who needs the house built?”
Jewel smiled again, the annoyance melting away.
“She’s nothing like Darla if that’s what you’re worried about. She won’t beat you or starve you. You’ll be working in the sun, have three meals a day, and a bed to sleep in at night.”
He dropped his eyes to the floor. His mind blazed through the assorted possibilities, while his chest tightened with uncertainty.
Sobs from the slave down the hall had started up again. The other man’s torment spurred Jake’s decision.
Jewel shifted her feet, and Jake tilted his head to meet her amber gaze.
“Are you interested, Mr. Nichols?”
He hesitated. Wary prickles crept over his skin and his heart stuttered, but there really wasn’t any other choice.
“Yes,” he said, and a shudder of hope passed through him. The reemergence of the once-lost emotion sent another wave of terrified tingles racing up and down his spine.
“Very good,” she replied with a smile. “Let’s get you out of here. Your temporary Mistress is anxious for you to start right away.” She turned to the guard outside. “Hailey, would you unchain him, please?”
As Hailey released his shackles from the wall and helped him to his feet, Jake’s stomach fluttered with the shock of escaping this hellhole, where he had expected to die. Heart racing, he reeled and stumbled into the wall, but Hailey steadied him. His head spun and his stomach churned from lack of food, but he fought down the nausea and clenched his jaw, determined to keep going. He would not stay in this place one second longer than it took to get on a horse, or in a cart, or whatever transportation waited to take him away from here.
One foot in front of the other, he thought, his whole body feeling somehow lighter with every step. Just keep going.
“Lead the way, ma’am,” he told Jewel when he stood beside her in the hallway, swaying slightly, but resolutely staying on his feet.
She smiled and started down the hall.
Jake Nichols, with a rapidly lightening heart, followed in her wake.
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