Irritation surged when boots nudged her feet apart, baring her backside to the men standing behind her. The bit cut into the corners of her mouth, a bitter reminder of her lot in life. No better than an animal, life had twisted and brought her to this place of shame. An animal for buying, selling, and using however her new master choose. Bile rose in her throat at how exactly he’d use her.
“She’s got great hindquarters, solid flanks, and a large chest.” Her keeper yanked on her long tawny locks, forcing her head up. Her teeth sank into the leather of the bit to keep from screaming when a hand landed hard on her butt. “And she can take a lot.”
“Is she broken?” His voice, deep and rich, rose above her then settled like a blanket on her.
Shrugging off the pull of his voice, she let her irritation morph into anger. She shook her hair out, letting it fall along her back.
Defiance had her meeting the stormy blue gaze of the man inspecting her. From her position on hands and knees, he appeared to tower above her, making her feel tiny, delicate. Kindness, something she hadn’t seen in a long time, lurked deep in his eyes. The lack of cruelty softened the otherwise hard lines of his jaw and brow. She felt an unfamiliar tug of longing looking at him.
Her keeper, short and broad chested, narrowed her eyes on her, noting her disobedience. Holding this man’s gaze was a bold move; knowing she wouldn’t be beaten with visitors present gave her a streak of rebellion that they normally squashed.
“She…” The clearing of the shorter man’s throat came before he continued on, “will abide only a firm hand. Perhaps a more docile one would be ideal?”
“A firm hand.” The man stooped to run his calloused hand along her ribs. “So much passion in her. Would be a shame to quench her fire.”
He cupped her breasts, weighing it in his palms. Her reaction was immediate, her nipple pulling tight and stabbing into his hand. He released her, his hand trailing down her stomach and resting low near the top of her mound. She couldn’t break his gaze, those blue/black eye held her captive, promising delicious possibilities of pleasure.
“Where did you find her?” He pressed on her stomach, kneading and sending more pleasure trembling down between her thighs.
“At the market. Her family sold her.”
The pain came then as it always did, sharp and breath-stealing. Images of the day she stood in the middle of the market, her father’s calculating look and her mother’s cool indifference, seared her. The hope of marriage, of a life filled with happiness dimmed when her keeper led her away. For a few coins they’d sold her like cattle.
“Open your eyes, pretty girl,” he whispered into her ear.
When had she closed them? She opened up at his request and met his eyes again. They were lighter, burning with something that filled her with hope.
“Would you let me set you free?” His hand inched lower, skimming along her curls but not touching where she suddenly needed his touch. “Would you let me show you how good life can be?”
She opened her mouth around the bit, but then snapped it shut. Fear threatened to choke her; it was a friend far closer to her than hope lately, and she didn’t know how to trust.
“You are more than this.” His voice was hypnotic, weaving around her mind and making her think of better things. “You are more.”
Tears pricked her eyes. She couldn’t help it, she croaked out around the bit, “Please.”
His lips brushed her jaw before he withdrew. The lost of his heat pulled a sob from her before she could stop the sound. Hope died as he and her keeper left the stall, left her feeling colder than before.
She would not cry. Pulling her dignity around her like a cape, she crawled off the pedestal, moving slowly to the thin pallet at the corner of her stall. Drained, she lay naked over the blankets and closed her eyes.
Long moments passed, her mind slow to settle. She was foolish to let hope kindle in her when there was nothing to hope for.
Gentle hands in her hair roused her, stroking and soothing her when she startled. The bit disappeared from her mouth, her body gathered against a clothed one.
“You’re coming with me.” His lips pressed into her hair and she relaxed into him. “I’ll take care of you.”
And for the first time, she felt more than fear… She felt warm… She felt loved.