Joanna’s Sacrifices

*This short story takes place after the sequel, Hunt the Storm.

To avoid spoilers, read Break the Stone and Hunt the Storm before Joanna’s Sacrifices*

**Trigger Warning for graphic sexual content**

JOANNA’S SACRIFICES

The shadow grew, blocking my only exit. But a shadow was harmless compared to the toxins Zohaib had poisoned me with over the years. He took my dignity, career, and body, but now—he had threatened my daughter. Fuckin’ deal-breaker.

Sometimes, while hiding in those dark tunnels, I greedily welcomed the possibility that all my pain could finally end. But I had sworn years ago that my death wouldn’t be from his choosing. I’d be the one to pull the trigger.

His boots skidded, smearing grainy sand over the marble floor. Marble— such a bastard. Backing into the wall was pointless, and squeezing my eyes shut would only invite another form of nightmare. If only those memories weren’t real. I widened my stance and crouched, holding my breath as the footsteps approached. I had no choice but to face the man. My heartbeat thrummed faster, stronger, ready.

My fingers tightened around the sharp blade, pointing toward that looming bear of a shadow. He stopped. Sucked in a breath, then released. Fresh breath. Not Zohaib’s alcohol stench.

Wait …  who’s there?

A soft beam of flickering light from further down the tunnel illuminated the man’s pale skin and brown hair. Definitely not Zohaib. Where was the slicked-back bun I needed to sever? Where were the amber eyes slit like a serpent? I needed to see them one last time before I thrust my dagger between them.

My muscles burned from this frozen position. If the man turned an inch, I’d have a clear shot at his throat. But I wasn’t supposed to be a killer. I was supposed to be a mother. A wife. Zohaib did this to me. He made me this monster. A slight draft blew down the tunnel and a soft plink of water echoed off the walls. The corner of my ruby red cloak flapped against my leg.

He pivoted fast and asked in a deep voice, “Who’s there?”

I raised the dagger high above my head.

“Jawhara? Is that you?”

I gasped and stepped back, lowering my weapon. “Madov?” The whisper escaped my lips, giving away my location.

Madov swiveled on his heels and met my eyes. “You’re alive!” He rushed over and wrapped strong arms around my thin frame.

I jerked free. “Where’s Zohaib?”

Madov’s gaze darted up to the compass symbol on the tunnel ceiling. “When I slipped out for my break, he was punishing soldiers.”

I cringed. “Are any of them on our side?”

Madov sighed. “No, they’re all with Storm Force.”

“What did they do wrong?”

“Does it matter?” His shoulders dropped.

I studied his face, then slipped my blade into its sheath and tugged out the piece of paper from my pocket. “Is this code up to date?”

Madov shook his head and dropped his forehead into his palms. “I don’t know, Jawhara.”

“Call me Joanna now.”

“Why the change?”

My mind went back in time, three months to when Raelyn magically showed up in the safehouse. A tornado of emotions had spasmed out of control that day, spiraling from relief to ecstasy to utter terror that she was within Zohaib’s reach. The lengths I had taken to convince him that our daughter had died long ago would all be futile if she was seen with me. Of all the things I had endured, pushing her away at that moment was the hardest thing I had ever done. On top of the pain I had caused her, everything worsened. Separating her from Liam was so cruel but necessary. Then, I thought it was finally over and that she’d go home to her little brother and live happily ever after. Not in a million years did I imagine she would show up at Zohaib’s auction.

I laid my hand over my heart, hoping she was safe.

“Jawhara? Are you okay?” Madov searched my face.

His eyes faded away as the flashbacks continued. When I tried to shove Raelyn out that bathroom window, it was for her own good. But she didn’t understand, and I couldn’t tell her the truth. That Zohaib was her biological father, and if he found out that she was alive, he’d use her. That monster would torture her in front of his soldiers and slaves as a fear factor to maintain control over them. He’d see it as the perfect way to terrify them all. If he was capable of laying a finger on his own flesh and blood, then nothing would stop him from hurting each of them. 

“Jawhara!” Two steady hands gripped my shoulders, digging into my skin. But staying in reality—in the present moment—was a constant struggle these days.

At the thought of how much hurt I had caused Raelyn, my body froze. Turmoil cascaded over me. I hated myself for exposing her to Zohaib’s cold minions at the auction and saying those terrible things. Everything inside me had felt like it snapped in half when I pretended that I didn’t care for my baby girl. William never should’ve had to raise her alone. Every time I tried to contact them, a barrier always stood in my way. I could never win, not with Zohaib behind the scenes, playing puppet master. So, the only remaining option to reunite with my family would be to kill Zohaib.

Madov snapped in front of my eyes.

“Call me Joanna now. There’s no point in pretending anymore.” A lock of my brown hair swept in front of my face, blocking my vision as I gripped at his soldier uniform. “Please, tell me the code. I need to get in his safe.”

Madov’s strong muscles enveloped me. “It’s suicide.”

“Zohaib won’t kill me.”

He raised one brow. We both knew my statement was a lie, but Madov barreled on with another question that I didn’t have time for. “What good will it do to steal more money?”

My fists clenched into balls. “It could help so many of the families he has destroyed.” I squinted at the lever, high above Madov’s head. “Now, lift me up there, so I can open the trap door.”

His grip around my cloak latched tighter. “You’re hiding something.” Madov’s brows furrowed. “Why do you need to get into that safe so badly? Why now?”

My eyes darted down the tunnel. “I need evidence to show the authorities in America, so they have a real reason to arrest or kill that son of a bitch. Otherwise, no one will believe me.”

Madov scratched his beard and narrowed his eyes. “You’re leaving Iraq?”

“Yes. I have a pilot ready to go. He needs to leave in an hour, so I don’t have much time. This is my last chance.”

“Take my daughters with you.” In the smallest fraction of a second, his eyes flickered to a high spot in the tunnel. Following his focus, I spotted a flickering red light, revealing a new camera. Damn it.

Unease crept up my spine. I tilted my head. “Why are you down here at this hour?”

His mouth opened, then clamped shut again. “You seriously think I’d betray you?”

“Why else would you ask me to take your daughters?”

Madov leaned in slowly and whispered in my ear. “None of us are safe anymore. Please, take them with you to America.”

“Quiet. I can hear someone. Raise me up there.” I straightened my shoulders.

He sighed. “Promise me, you’ll bring my daughters with you.”

“Maybe, now lift me.”

“This is why we all follow you. You’re fearless.”

He was wrong. I had more terror flowing through my veins than grains of sand in the desert. Zohaib wanted Raelyn, and he wouldn’t stop until he found her. How could he fathom torturing his daughter?

A holler came from the far end of the tunnel.

“Hurry!” Heart pounding, I jumped from the tips of my toes.

Madov kneeled fast. “Climb.”

My boot slipped on his back, but he held me steady. I teetered on his shoulders as he stood. Clawing high at the air, I whispered. “Higher.”

A grunt escaped Madov’s lips as he lifted my boots straight up. I clutched onto the lever and pushed it fast. A door zipped open in the ceiling, revealing a metal ladder ascending vertically.

“Pull up!” He commanded.

Footsteps thundered down the tunnel. No, I couldn’t leave Madov to them. But he pushed me higher, and my sweaty palms gripped the bottom rung. Using every ounce of muscle, I yanked myself up while groaning loudly. My arms shook fiercely. Just before I gained a proper footing on the ladder, I glanced down at Madov. Several deep voices yelled in chaos. I had to help him. Madov pulled out his gun, and shots blasted the air. A thump.

“Go!” He yelled.

My jaw dropped, and I reached down. I couldn’t lose another person. Not one more. He stared at me for a moment too long, then aimed his gun at the lever. A bullet pinged into the button. The door between us sealed shut with a whoosh. I pounded on the barrier, listening to the shouts below.

The piece of paper with the code fluttered out from the edge of my pocket and stuck to the fabric of my cloak. I seized it and glared at the red ink scripted like drops of blood. Up. The only way. I climbed hard, fast, harder, faster until my legs shook. My heart rate pulsed madly as I reached the top.

I didn’t have time to say a prayer or make a wish; dreams and fairytales had ended twelve years ago. Even so, the way Raelyn looked when she scrunched her button-nose flashed through my mind. I got her into this mess, and I’d get her out of it—once and for all. After pressing my ear to the last barrier standing between me and Zohaib’s study, I changed my mind and made a desperate wish. For only a moment, I gritted my teeth and whispered to the cold marble caging me. Please keep her safe. Please. Don’t let him find her.

My hand fumbled until I found the button and pushed it. The trap door above swished open, and the scent of cigars and carpet met my nostrils. I stumbled out of the hole and leaped to my feet. Glancing around in the darkness, I only saw the familiar snake statues, bookshelves, and giant desk towering to my left. Thick curtains rustled behind as a night breeze changed their shape, curving in and out, dancing with the wind.

I rushed across the Persian rug and held down vomit at the memory of the positions Zohaib had forced me into on that rug. It seemed impossible that the fuckin’ rug was still snow-white. His actions were as dark as his coal heart, and the rug should’ve been the same color. At least my boots would dirty it, leaving a souvenir from the woman who was about to screw him over.

Darting across the room, I avoided the parts of the hardwood floor that creaked and stood directly in front of the canvas painting of the mountain— a piece of home I was able to disguise in this hell hole. My heart raced at the reminder that my William was no longer on this earth. The image of his eyes had kept me sane, focused, grounded for so many years. Reality came crashing down and ripped me to shreds at the news of his death.

My hands trembled as they hovered over the artwork and dropped it to the floor. The door of a safe sparkled in front of me with a locked combination begging to be opened. I twisted the dial. Damn. Of course, Zohaib had changed it.

The pilot said, don’t be late …  50 minutes.

I held the paper in front of my eyes, angling it to allow the moonlight to shine onto the numbers. I twisted the lock to the first number.

A voice boomed from the hallway—not just any voice. My breath hitched as I peered at the light coming from the crack below the door. I shook my head and squinted at the lock again. The numbers blurred together, meshing into unreadable symbols. When was the last time I had eaten? The dial slipped between my fingers. It’s okay. Just start over.

A hard thunk slammed against the study door, denting the wood. I gasped, and fear rippled through my bones. In an instant, old habits consumed me as I hid behind a thick curtain. Cursing myself, I held my breath.

While the door opened, Zohaib’s voice was calm, too calm, as he commanded, “Bring them in here.”

I cringed, knowing what his tone meant for those men. The sound of someone being dragged assaulted my ears. Although, Zohaib would never spill a drop of blood on his precious rug. The men were safe—for now.

Zohaib spoke in a hushed tone, “Tie that pathetic one to the leg of the desk.”

More dragging infiltrated my ears, followed by grunting.

“And that guy, over there.” Zohaib’s footsteps paced. He stood close, probably noticing the exposed safe. I wasn’t sure how many others knew the safe was hidden there. But Zohaib had no reason to believe I was still alive, so he couldn’t blame me.

A soldier asked, “What is your next order, commander?”

“Find out the coordinates of where that video picked up little Blondie’s image.” Zohaib paused, “Once his location has been established, set up cameras around the perimeter of his residence and put three men on the scene to follow and record his whereabouts. I can use him as leverage.”

Who is Blondie?

Zohaib cleared his throat, the sound was so close.

I can stab his back, then stomp on his body … Just come a little closer …

I held my breath.

“What is this?” Zohaib asked.

The curtain flung to the side, and Zohaib’s amber eyes bore into mine. His head cocked to the side. That one moment of surprise claiming his face was disguised quickly with pure interest.

“Oh, my, dear Jawhara. I’m so glad you’re safe.” He twisted my wrist, making me drop the dagger, then pulled me to the center of the room. Perfect, straight, white teeth portrayed a false sense of security.

No, please don’t smile. Throw a book. Break a statue.

“Gentlemen, my darling has returned. We can end our search.” He nodded to a guard, who flipped on the lights.

I dipped my chin from the attack of sudden brightness and stifled a cry from the sight before me. Madov lay shirtless on his side in the middle of the rug with his wrists cuffed behind his back. Scrapes dripped blood down his bruised skin.

Zohaib moved closer, rubbing his fingertips on my forearm. “Oh, I’m sorry, dear. I know you don’t like to see my job in the works. We can go up to bed soon, but I need to take care of this first.”

Once my head cleared, I took in Zohaib’s new shape next to me. His round belly had been replaced by a flat, firm chest and stomach. The arm wrapped around my back was as strong as I remembered him from when we met nineteen years ago.

“Whaaat?” I gaped at his new body.

He clutched me closer. “Like what you see, sweetie? You’ve been gone so long, I had to do something to ease my worries.” His grin snaked up his cheeks. “Tell me what you’ve been doing for the last few months.”

None of your damn business.

“Recovering and trying to get home to you.” I scanned the room where other men were tied to the desk and bookshelf. “What did they do wrong?”

Zohaib smiled. “Traitors. Did you know someone has been delivering books to the women and children in the villages?”

I gulped. He’ll soon know the strengths of those revolting against his powers.

He twisted a lock of my hair between two fingers. “And these men have been telling the women how to leave my territories. Can you believe that?” He leaned down and trailed his lips over my neck.

I restrained a shudder, knowing he’d feel it and punish me later. No, I wouldn’t allow him to have access to me later. I have to get to the pilot in the next 40 minutes.

“After all these years, apparently, people are still ungrateful for the generous gifts I provide,” he hissed.

I rolled Madov over with a soft kick of my boot. Please forgive me.

Madov grunted and spat out blood.

“Even this one? He’s your top guy. He can’t be in on it,” I said.

Zohaib stepped back and bit his lip. “You’re friends with this one, sweetie?”

I dropped my gaze, focusing on the etches in the pattern of the wood. A sight I was all too familiar with. Sweat trickled down the back of my neck, and my heart thundered under my ribs. “I’m tired. I’ll meet you in our room.”

Gotta get the hell out of here.

Zohaib dug his nails into my wrist. “Not this time. I’m not letting you out of my sight again.”

I forced a smile, “I missed you, too.”

“Don’t lie to me.”

A sharp slap smacked against my cheek, and I stumbled back and tripped over Madov. On the landing, a bone snapped in my wrist, and pain surged through my hand. I held in my scream. He’d use any weakness against me.

Madov’s brown eyes glistened as they locked onto mine. My friend, who had helped tend to my injuries for so many years, lay defenseless at the mercy of the devil. I had to keep him alive—for the sake of his young daughters.

Zohaib stepped over Madov and offered a hand down to me. His angular jaw rose in assertive confidence, and those devious eyes lasered into my soul. “Tell me exactly where you have you been?” His tone spidered shivers down my spine.

Refusing his assistance, I stood and held my sore wrist behind my back. “A grenade went off that night we were separated. I was injured and knocked unconscious. I woke up in a different village and unable to walk home.”

Zohaib smiled. “I’m so glad you still think of this as your home. So, you’re not considering going back to Oak City?”

I stared him down. “There’s nothing for me in Oak City.”

Only 30 minutes till takeoff. I’m running out of time.

He circled around me. As he rounded to my back, I moved my wrist to my front. It felt like needles stabbing along my skin. “It shouldn’t have taken you months to return to me.” He yanked my hair, and my body arched backward.

A scream stole the air from my lungs as I landed flat on my back. “I swear, Master. I wanted to return to you sooner.”

Zohaib stood over me, his boots on either side of my ears, slowly crunching closer.

“Can your men punish these traitors so we can go to bed? Please, Master?”

“I did miss your voice.” His gaze landed on the safe, and terror washed over every clenched muscle. “But, why were you hiding behind the curtain, dear?” He bent over and grabbed my waist with one arm, hurling me to my feet like a play doll.

The ticking of the clock distracted the endless scenarios running through my mind as I waited. He knew every form of torture, and prolonging silence was one of his favorites.

“You will punish a traitor for me,” he said.

My heart pounded in my chest. “That’s the job of a soldier.”

He stormed closer, that whiskey breath suffocating my senses as he gripped my chin tightly. “If you do not, you will be among them. You choose. Them or you.”

I nodded and walked to the unfamiliar soldier tied to the bookshelf.

“No.” Zohaib held up a hand. “That one.” He pointed to Madov, panting on the floor.

Tears pooled behind my eyes. This was why I never formed bonds, why I never trusted or relied on anyone. Except for Madov, and now he would suffer.

I can still stop this.

Fully aware that multiple men had eyes on me, I dropped my cloak, letting it cover Madov. Maybe if Zohaib couldn’t see him, he’d forget.

“Master, I’ve waited so long to see you again.” I shimmied a bit, so my shirt fell loose, exposing my bare shoulder. “Let’s deal with the traitor in the morning.”

Zohaib pulled out his pistol and aimed it straight at my temple. “Stop playing games.”

My breaths came heavy as I glanced at the form under my scarlet—crimson—blood-red cloak.

“Actually, you’re right. That’s a good idea.” Zohaib holstered, massaged his black beard, and narrowed his eyes. “Strip. Now.”

Fine. This could distract him.

I lifted my t-shirt over my head with one arm, carefully threading it over my hurt wrist.

“Take your sweet time.” He growled sarcastically.

The eyes of the other men injured or not, all observed. It was scenes like this that hardened my iron-clad heart. He had no clue the promised wrath I’d unleash on him — when the time was right.

Not a day had passed in the last twelve years where I hadn’t considered a way to murder the man before me. Strangulation. Fire. Poison. Bullets. Shovel to the head. Axe. Whipping. Hanging. Drowning. The options were endless, yet any attempt had failed. And he knew. Zohaib understood my loathing for him and chuckled his way through it all, winning at every turn. Each time I thought I had jumped one step ahead, he had still found a way to beat me.

I dropped my shorts, and they flopped to the floor, in front of Madov’s nose. Goosebumps formed from the breeze grazing my exposed skin. “Master?”

He shook his head and gestured to the guard. “Do you think that’s good enough, soldier?”

The man gulped and stared out the window where sand blew in from an incoming storm. “No, sir. I mean, yes, sir.”

“Which is it? Has Jawhara paid her price for abandoning me? Is that the only sacrifice she should make?”

“No, sir.”

My temples throbbed with rage for this power-hungry asshole. Zohaib’s soldiers weren’t to blame. They were all controlled under his wretched plans too.

“There you have it. My soldier thinks you need to be further punished. And I agree.” Zohaib crossed his arms. “You humiliated me by disappearing that night in Haavij. I knew you weren’t dead.” Zohaib’s eyes turned to fire. “Think of what my soldiers said behind my back, that I can’t control my women.” His voice bellowed. “Now, strip.”

“Of course, Master.” Flames crackled in my core as my hatred for him erupted like a volcano from my gut, spilling out to the tips of my fingers and the tips of each toe. My bra and underwear added to the pyramid of clothing on the ground.

He scanned my body and stepped forward. I used every ounce of willpower to hold my ground. As his hands roamed my curves, I dove into the memories that held my broken pieces together—a walk by the river holding Raelyn’s little hand as she jumped from log to log. Zohaib’s hands pinched my nipple. My hands digging in our garden as the sun beat down on my back. Zohaib’s hands groped between my thighs. I stifled a gasp, and my muscles clenched. William’s fingers coated in paint as we painted the new baby’s nursery. The child we lost.

Zohaib’s fingers moved inside of me, and a tear trickled down my cheek.

“Good, tears of happiness. Now you remember how much you missed it here.” Zohaib stepped away, and I steadied myself on the giant desk. “It’s a dangerous world out there. You’re much safer here with me.”

The penetrating stares of the other men absorbed my every feature. “Can I put my clothes on?”

“No.”

Zohaib pointed to the ashes and soot in the chimney by the corner. “Make Madov swallow that.”

My whole body trembled as I walked over and scooped up a handful. I raised it to my mouth. “You said I could choose them or me.”

Zohaib froze for a moment, but his eyes widened. “I did, but is that so wise when I have your son under surveillance? A child needs his mother.”

My lungs failed me.

He doesn’t know about Liam. He can’t.

“What?” The word slipped out as the dirt sifted through my fingers. “What?”

He nodded. “That’s what I thought. Your son is in danger, my lovely. Let me show you.”

Zohaib reached into his pocket and pulled out a remote. After pointing it to the corner, the hidden television screen moved into view from behind a bookshelf. Loud static beat against my ears until he pushed a few buttons and a clear image of Liam shone on the screen.

My hand clasped over my mouth, and my elbow rubbed against my nipple, reminding me of the naked state Zohaib had forced me into.

My chest squeezed, ready to explode from fear. “That’s not my son.”

Zohaib nodded. “Oh, good. So, you won’t mind if the guard I have stationed outside his house goes in to collect him for my army.”

I lunged forward and laid a hand against Zohaib’s chest. “Stop! Please! What do you want?”

He grazed his fingertip around my bare waist and nodded to the chimney. “Make Madov swallow that.”

I raced over, grabbed a fistful, and swept my cloak off Madov’s form. I kneeled in front of the only friend I could count on and stared into his eyes.

I can’t.

Madov nodded briefly and opened his mouth voluntarily. In the only act of defiance available to me, I glared into Zohaib’s eyes as I shoved the ashes down Madov’s throat. He coughed but somehow swallowed it.

“More,” Zohaib commanded.

Tears streamed down, raining off my chin onto the precious Persian rug, stained with Madov’s blood. Apparently, I was wrong. Zohaib must not mind getting it dirty.

He tapped his foot. “Jawhara, you’ve turned soft. What happened to you these past months?”

I trudged back to the chimney and stared at my bare feet, covered in soot and splashes of tears.

“More!” Zohaib yelled.

I whirled around and faced him, shooting daggers with my gaze. “Wait, I have an idea you will like.”

He sighed, pulled out his gun, and waved me over. Within arm’s reach, Zohaib pulled me close. My back scratched against the front of his uniform. Aiming the gun at Madov, he hovered my finger over the trigger. “Shoot him.”

“No, I have an idea. Listen to me.” My voice shook chaotically.

“Shoot him! Show me that you’re on my side!”

“Madov,” I breathed out his name and met his brown eyes just before Zohaib pressed my finger over the trigger, squeezed, and a bullet lodged into the back of Madov’s head. Red pooled on the floor surrounding his head. Dead.

A scream never meant to be heard shattered my body as I dropped to my knees. I rolled him over and fixated on Madov’s glossy eyes. My blood boiled hot. His daughters would never feel his hugs again. Turning fast, I aimed the gun at Zohaib and squeezed the trigger again. Empty.

He smiled. “Nice try, dear.”

I lurched forward and thrust my arms at Zohaib, pain slicing through my wrist as I hammered pointless punches into his stomach.

“Ssh, it’s okay.” He held me firmly to his chest and stroked my hair as tears spilled. “I know you don’t like to see my work, Jawhara. Now get your clothes. No one wants to see you like that.” He turned back toward the television screen.

I peered over his shoulder and watched Liam grab a soda from the fridge and smile at his aunt across the kitchen. If only I could keep my son safe. I succeeded for so many years. Zohaib hadn’t known about him while Snyder kept Liam under his radar— while I continually offered Snyder the power over my body. The war between men and power would never stop. I couldn’t let Zohaib kill Liam the way he had murdered so many others. Liam would not be the next Madov.

Find a way to distract him.

I quickly put my clothes on and fired glares at the guards who still scanned me. Taking a deep inhale, I braved to step between Zohaib and the television. “Master, I can give you something you want more than a stupid teenage boy.” Inching closer, I slid the remote from his grasp and pressed my body against his.

He smirked. “I’m listening.”

I sucked in oxygen once more, hoping that Specialist Walsh would protect Raelyn until his dying day, just as he had promised. “I know where our daughter is. I can take you to her.”

“Raelyn?” Zohaib’s bushy eyebrows raised, and he ran a hand over his slicked-back bun. “I have no reason to believe you, dear.

I pressed a button to turn the television off and threw the remote out the window.

He laughed effusively, from deep in his belly. “You’ll pay for that later.”

I wrapped one hand behind his neck and pulled him an inch from my lips. “I won’t be paying for it if I want it.”

“Good girl. Just the way I like you.”

Disgust swarmed my veins, threatening to burst me to pieces.

Zohaib brushed his slimy lips over my shoulder blade. “Why would you tell me our daughter’s location? Don’t you care for her just as much as that boy?”

I gulped. “I only knew her for a few years, and a weak mountain man raised her the way he wanted. I don’t even know the girl.”

Memories flooded a picture reel running on repeat in my mind. Raelyn holding her unicorn stuffed animal and bouncing on my lap. Swinging on a tire outside our red barn. Helping me hang birdhouses and choosing the same ice cream flavor each time. Reaching up for my hand when she fell down. Tripping on the excess fabric while playing dress-up.

Zohaib’s revulsive tongue swirled the side of my neck. “So, where is she?”

I reached for his belt loop, freeing the buckle. “I just need to confirm one detail with my contact.”

He pushed away hard, and I almost fell over Madov’s lifeless body. The smell of copper hit my nostrils, and bile rose up my throat. No matter how many murders Zohaib had forced me to watch, I would never adjust to death.

“You either know where our daughter is, or you don’t.”

I moved closer again and slid my hand down his pants.

He groaned, and his eyes grew wild. His lips devoured my shoulders again as he pinned me against the bookshelf. I allowed it, letting the distraction run its course. Not that I had any choice in the matter. A dead man laid at my feet. My son was being spied on by criminals, and the only information I knew that Zohaib didn’t was Raelyn’s location.

Zohaib jerked away and shook his head. “You taste so good.”

I forced a smile. “You want more?”

He froze, seized both my shoulders, and shook violently. My head snapped back and forth, then rammed into the shelf. “Stop distracting me!” Books knocked over like dominoes onto the floor. “Tell me where she is.”

My vision blurred, and the snake statues in front of me looked enchanted as if they were slithering and smiling at me, taunting my existence. I cradled the back of my neck and backed away, placing the coffee table as a barrier between us. My head pounded.

Zohaib pulled out his phone from his pocket and pushed a few buttons. Nesting the phone between his ear and shoulder, he commanded, “G71, it’s time. Seize the boy and bring him to me.”

“No!” I dropped to my knees and pawed at Zohaib’s pants. “Please. Raelyn’s in Ash Mountain.”

“Cancel that, G71. Stay there and keep him in your sights.”

“Thank you, Master.” My head sagged, and I counted to five, trying to control my breathing.

One.

Kody Walsh will protect Raelyn.

Two.

I can distract Zohaib and delay his trip.

Three.

Nothing will happen to Liam.

Four.

I can warn them all.

Five.

I will kill Zohaib.

Reaching up for his other gun, I imagined a life without Zohaib. Raelyn’s graduation. Her wedding. Liam receiving an IT award. Hiking in the mountains. Liam’s smile. Raelyn’s photography plastered all over my walls. Liam’s laugh. Raelyn’s first child. It could happen. Anything was possible. As long as I killed Zohaib first. A jolt of pain shot through my wrist and up my arm as I grazed my fingertips over his second gun.

I’ll sacrifice anything for my children.

Zohaib thrust my hand onto his loaded gun and pulled it out. With his hand covering mine, he forced the gun straight at my temple. “You ran from me, Jawhara. Now is your chance to leave me for good.” I felt the cool metal under my trigger finger. “End your agony now, and both your children will live. I’ll leave them alone.” His smile slithered higher. “I dare you.”

“No.”

I had sworn years ago that my death wouldn’t be from Zohaib choosing. I’d be the one to pull the trigger. My heartbeat thrummed faster, stronger. But I wasn’t ready. Not yet.

*Order Stop the Clock to read what happens to Raelyn, Joanna, Liam and Zohaib.

Stop the Clock is the final installment of the Golden Chains Trilogy*

Published by CassieSwindon

Fiction author

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