From On Fractured Ground
Chapter 1: Problem Child
Corbin almost ran straight into her. His professional barriers shattered the instant he recognized her.
She spun from the door in what seemed like slow motion. Her blue-green eyes focused on him as waves of black silk swirled around her. A clear violation of the Institute’s policy, which required a braid or bun. In an environment where everything must be controlled, hair was no exception.
Though she was the main reason behind this visit, he came unprepared for an encounter with her. Students in the third-year sector were supposed to be studying right now. It seemed her habit of sneaking out of her sector room had not changed.
He took an involuntary sharp breath as she closed in on him. All he could do was stand there helplessly as she approached.
“You’re him, aren’t you?” She appeared as shocked as he was by what she just said. She touched the middle of his chest, pressing, testing to see if he was really there.
He tensed but did nothing to stop her. This should not be happening.
There was no way she could remember him. His father had insisted those memories were gone. Perhaps she thought she’d seen him around because of his strong resemblance to his father. Few people had made the mistake of saying he looked exactly like a younger William Manning, though he knew it was true. They were built the same at five-foot-ten, with broad shoulders, curly black hair, and nearly identical facial features. The only noticeable difference were the eyes. His father’s had been almost black, where Corbin’s were bright brown.
Mary came charging down the corridor. “Get away, child. Stop harassing the owner.”
His chest tightened at the reference. She only mentioned his ownership out of spite, and calling Tylar a child was belittling. He would not validate the behavior with a reaction.
The proctor shooed Tylar away. “Go put your hair up. You’re in enough trouble without finding more.”
Tylar’s gaze shifted to Corbin, placing him under a microscope. He couldn’t help but feel judged by those eyes. This place should not be operational. He should have shut it down before his father’s body turned cold. Another reason he had made the trek out here. His first course of business had been to speak with the headmaster, Proctor Teri, about phasing it out.
Corbin steeled himself, then moved past Tylar and into the classroom. The quicker he got this over with, the sooner he could leave.
He claimed the proctor’s desk, disregarding the eighteen-year-old boy sitting in a row near the window. Corbin’s disdain for trafficking women aside, he would rather forget the devastation this campus represented. Until Tylar’s recent insubordination and the need to rid himself of the illegal business, he had had no intention of ever revisiting this reformatory.
Registered as Cellar Institute, the secluded fortress posed as a rehabilitation facility for troubled girls. School uniforms, altered education, and isolation from society hid its true mission: to produce high-end sex slaves.
The horrors of traditional human trafficking left its victims with crippling mental disorders. To monopolize the black market, his grandfather, Michael Manning, sought to create a drama-free product. The Institute incorporated meticulous indoctrination to keep its students naïve, submissive, and dependent.
Closing these doors would be neither simple nor quick. He wasn’t about to order everyone killed, and letting them all go could get him thrown in prison. His only option was to sell the Institute’s women as they graduated skills training, and even that was not as simple as it sounded. Corbin had yet to agree to a single bid since he took over. Selling women into an existence of potential violence did not sit well with him.
This damned place brought nothing but chaos into his life.
Mary shoved into the room, solidifying his unspoken assessment. The door slammed in her wake, accentuating her mood. “That child needs to go.”
“I doubt that will be necessary.” Straightening, he folded his hands in his lap. “Do you have a copy of her current records?”
Mary thrust it at him.
Thumbing through, he asked, “How is she in class?”
She shifted on her feet. “Adequate.”
There was no way it was as simple as that. Tylar had to be one of the smartest people he had ever met, though the Institute had succeeded in keeping her too naïve. Besides, he wasn’t asking about her grades. Corbin was trying to determine whether she was causing problems in the classroom.
He trapped Mary in a glare. “Do not lie to me.”
The proctor clucked her tongue. “She follows instruction and has top marks. But book smarts are not the goal of this institute. That girl’s only value is in the bedroom. This is the second skill trainer she’s affected. Third, if you count Lance.”
“Lance is not an example of why she should fail skills.” According to his father’s journals, Lance was relieved of his duties after he became emotionally attached to Tylar. Not only was that not her fault, but it spoke to her magnetism. “Quite the opposite.”
Shades of red undulated across Mary’s fair complexion, lending a frightening quality to her ice-colored eyes. “Keeping her here is a mistake.”
She looked as though she might explode. If Proctor Teri hadn’t confirmed Jay’s behavior prior to this meeting, Corbin would have thought Mary was lying about it to get Tylar in trouble. His father was to blame for her hatred of Tylar. Couldn’t have been easy being demoted from first choice to last place, all because of a pretty little black-haired girl with sparkling eyes.
Still, he couldn’t believe she was trying to convince him to expel Tylar. The Institute’s definition of expulsion was far more disturbing than an actual school’s. A measure he did not want to take. “I disagree. And your opinion does not belong here. I only want to hear facts.”
“The facts are she is too stubborn. Whatever William did to fix her attitude is wearing off.”
His jaw locked. It had been a year and a half since his father was gunned down. He had deserved so much worse. While throwing Tylar into seclusion for acting out with her first third-year skill trainer wasn’t the worst thing his father had ever done, Corbin couldn’t see her kicking someone without a damn good reason. There had to be more to the story. Something the Institute hadn’t even seen fit to dig deeper into. Something the skill trainer handlers must have missed.
“I thought my father solved the issue,” Corbin said.
“It took care of the violence.” She pointed at the kid he had forgotten about. “But what about Jay?”
He glanced at Tylar’s latest skill trainer, slumped behind a desk in the corner. Assigned to her two weeks ago, it was reported that he shrank away whenever Tylar got near him. He refused to work with her and was wary when dealing with his other assignment. Unchecked, that kind of conduct could lead students to recognize sex as power rather than an obligation. If this spawned a man-eater, expulsion would be instant.
Moreover, if Lance’s affectionate behavior had made Tylar into a femme fatale, she could land at the feet of what the students knew as the men in black suits. Corbin knew the students’ boogeymen had to have been his father’s most trusted guard, but to the girls, they were the entity to be feared the most. People who dragged off the girls who were bad, never to be seen or heard from again.
Corbin wanted nothing to do with killing girls. He refocused on Mary. “So, Jay let Tylar freak him out, and now you consider her uncontrollable.”
“Unacceptable,” Corbin kept his voice even. “Tylar stays. Go through the usual steps of punishment. Separate her from her peers and replace her routines with a stricter schedule. Instead of two months in the basement, leave her there until she completes the curriculum. Prepare her for graduation.”
Corbin grabbed the folder and stood to leave. He had to get out of here.
“She’s so stubborn.” Mary stalled his escape. “She’s a predator, Corbin. Not the prey. Look at how bold she was with you.”
He hated that Mary knew his full name. The only person with that knowledge should be the headmaster, Proctor Teri. If only his father had not been so careless. It really was a wonder this place had not yet been sacked.
“Then do your job and curb her rebellion. Charisma is allowable, it will make her more appealing.”
“I’m shocked you would put up with it as a Manning.”
The underlying message that he should act more like his late father did not escape him. He would not stand for it. “Enough. Tylar continues her education. End of discussion.”
He exited before Mary could comment further. Tylar leaned against the adjacent wall. Pale golden skin complimented a delicate bone structure, her watercolor eyes cutting into him. A haphazard pile of hair showed signs of impending collapse on top of her head. She exhibited undeniable intuitiveness, a rare trait for someone raised in an environment that worked to destroy insightfulness and complexity.
Once again under the force of her penetrating inspection, cracks spread across his defenses. He let the mere sight of her pierce his armor before the meeting. It would not happen this time. He matched her stare.
“You run this place.” Her voice was delicate.
It’d been so long since he stood this close to her. “Does that change your mind about who you thought I was?” The words were out before he could rein them in. He should not have said that.
She looked away as her face rushed to a bright pink.
That was a yes. Not that it mattered. The show of deference suggested they might be able to save her. He hated that saving her meant selling her off. “Good.”
Her head jerked back, eyes fluttering. She studied him with a rippled brow.
This woman still sent fire right through him. She stood before him, strong and determined. The teen he once knew was gone, but her spirit had not diminished. Not even after all she’d been through. Most of it because of him.
He turned to leave. Tylar’s hand grasped his shoulder but withdrew as he whirled on her, taking an aggressive stride into her. Most people would have cowered, yet she showed no signs of fear. She just moved back to avoid getting stepped on.
He was more relieved than he should’ve been that she did not appear to be afraid of him. Still, allowing the behavior without reprimand could send the wrong message. If she were this bold with a client, she could get hurt. “Never touch a man unless he initiates or gives permission.”
“Men aren’t the center of the universe,” she said it in a near whisper, yet she held her ground as he moved in.
An obsidian piece of hair broke free of the messy bun. The pads of his fingers brushed her temple as he swept it from her eyes, her cheeks coloring a deeper red. He wanted to run his thumb over those lips like he had years ago.
He dropped his hand. “They’re the center of yours. Especially when they hold your life in their hands.”
That got her attention. “Do you expect gratitude for being my savior?”
He had been referring to the Institute’s clients. Even if he were talking about himself, savior was far from the word he’d use, and she was not out of the woods. If she didn’t make herself marketable, he would be forced to make the most difficult decision of his life. “Do not make me regret my decision for you to remain.”
This time Corbin stalked out of the enormous prisonlike building without interception. As he approached the idling limousine, Jimmy opened the door. Corbin climbed in, and Chase slid across from him. The vehicle rolled through two secured gates before turning down a dirt road. Free of the fences, they sped off from Cellar Institute.
Chase’s eyes were on him as Corbin stared at his reflection in the window. If he spoke right away, his voice would betray him. Not like his appearance was doing him any favors. His curly black hair was in disarray, his gaze a haunted mess.
The car exited the cover of trees, making a right on a wider unpaved road. The nearest neighbor to the Institute graced the side of the road a mile later. He released a sigh of relief.
Chase cleared his throat. “Rough meeting?”
Of course Chase would pick up on his mood. Corbin rolled up the privacy window, then stuffed the file Mary had given him into his briefcase. He pulled out a similar folder, which held an earlier version of Tylar’s history.
Clients were allowed to review student records when deciding who to purchase. The files contained progress reports, training curricula, and other information pertinent to their personality and abilities. Disciplinary actions and interruptions to a graduate’s programming could be detrimental to a sale. Most of the time expulsion was avoided, and their documents revised to hide any undesirable behavior.
Tylar’s paperwork had undergone two revisions over the past four years. The one documenting her two-year seclusion when she was sixteen had been destroyed, though the guilt over his involvement still weighed heavily on him. Several months prior to his father’s murder, the file was revised again to remove what happened with Adam, her first third-year skill trainer, followed by a second isolation. Corbin handed Chase the file. How she avoided expulsion while his father was alive was beyond him.
Three years Corbin’s senior, Chase had responded to a labor ad that turned out to be a lure for a skill trainer when he was a teen. The perceptiveness that made him one of the best trainers the Institute had ever seen also made him an excellent security officer. With a knack for reading body language and dealing with difficult people, he shined during touchy situations.
Why he had been pulled from the Institute remained a mystery, but he became Corbin’s full-time shadow not long after. His father bribed the high school into allowing the then nineteen-year-old to enroll in the same sophomore classes. Chase’s constant presence persisted through college and into the world of business. Continued exposure to each other led to Corbin’s one and only friendship. He relied on Chase more than anyone else, which was why he was giving him the file. He needed a trusted set of eyes on the situation.
Chase read the folder’s label. “Tylar Daislea. Is this a skill trainer?”
“The only trainers involved in this mess are Adam, Lance, and Jay.”
“So who’s this guy?”
Corbin grimaced at the assumption that Tylar was male. “She.”
“A student?” Chase slapped the folder against his thigh. “Damn it. Please tell me you don’t want her killed for flunking out.”
Great, so now he was the kind of man who ordered the murder of an innocent woman. None of those women were to blame for getting stuck in that place. “When have I ever ordered you to kill anyone?”
“Yeah, well. I can’t remember when you last came out here. Figured it must be serious. You hate this place.”
Killing Tylar was the last thing he wanted. “Will you read the damn file?”
“All right.” Chase flipped the folder open.
After several minutes of skimming, something caught his attention. Chase frowned and appeared to focus on every word. The analysis lasted the rest of the way to Manning Estate, on the outskirts of SeaTac.
Chase held up the snapshot of a four-year-old Tylar. The photo dated back to when Sam Cranson delivered her to his father. Aside from the immature facial features of a child, Tylar retained the same stunning looks as a young woman.
“You mean to tell me that this cute little button raised all this ruckus?” Chase asked as the limo neared their gate.
“Let’s finish this in my study,” Corbin replied as he punched his six-digit pin into the comm box. A red led switched off, and the massive gates swung wide. The vehicle coasted up the driveway where a gaudy fountain gurgled in the turnabout.
They entered the house through two large double doors and started down the hall toward the stairs. The faint waft of chlorine beckoned from the poolroom on his left, promising reprieve from all his worries if he plunged into its calming waters. It would have to wait until they finished this distasteful business.
Chase paused at the second entryway on the right to speak to the guard on duty. Monitors engulfed an entire wall, broadcasting every inch of the grounds. Keypads in each room facilitated estate-wide communication and controlled all access. Most of the safeguards were designed to hold his mother captive. It would have served to hold him prisoner as well, had he not returned to his senses all those years ago. As a Manning, running away from the responsibilities his family laid out for him was not an option. He would have been hunted down and dealt with.
Corbin topped the stairs and headed toward the pair of doors to his study. Thousands of books lined its built-in shelves, most predating his grandfather. He settled behind an enormous mahogany desk in front of a wall of windows. Trying to distract himself, he browsed the wall above the fireplace to the side of his desk. His master’s degree hung above it, with site photos of some of Manning, Inc.’s subsidiaries surrounding the diploma. Of the seven companies Manning, Inc. owned, he favored Corner Street above all else. He had not expected to take over the drugstore chain until his father’s death passed it down. To his astonishment, William abdicated control of the subsidiary a week following Corbin’s twenty-first birthday.
Chase took his usual chair in front of the desk. He glanced at Corbin, then at the pictures. “Are you planning more expansion for Corner Street or taking a break to eat up the profits?” Neither of them appeared to be too excited to return to discussing the Institute. It wasn’t Chase’s favorite place, either.
“We won the bid for a lot on Military Road,” Corbin said, allowing the diversion to continue. If it were up to him, Manning, Inc. would be the sole thing his world revolved around. No Cellar Institute, no Tylar or worrying about the media’s take on his personal life. Just work.
“That’s right up the street.” A smile broke across Chase’s face. “I take it you want to take advantage of owning a pharmacy?”
Corbin wasn’t in the mood for his bad humor. Chase knew damn well he never got sick. And where he often indulged in whiskey or gin and tonic, getting high had never been his thing, either. “What do you think?”
A toss of the file landed it on the desk with a slap. “Looks like Tylar’s problems started with Adam.” Chase shuddered. “You know what happened to him is a trainer’s worst nightmare, right?”
Tylar’s original third-year trainer. No one had known there was a problem until she ruptured one of the guy’s testicles. Of course, Adam placed all the blame on her after the fact. He accused her of being uncooperative from day one. Claimed he tried taking matters into his own hands instead of reporting her for reprimand or reassignment. His father was still alive, and Corbin had been blacklisted from Cellar Institute, so his information came from the same file Chase just read. He still found it odd that it wasn’t mentioned in any of his father’s journals.
Corbin gave a slow nod. Proctor Teri had been teaching down the hall when she heard Adam scream. Found him in the fetal position on the floor, vomiting. Tylar was sitting up with a couple buttons popped and her skirt ripped off. Corbin still couldn’t believe she hadn’t been expelled from the Institute that very day. It wasn’t like his father to show leniency.
“How long was he out of commission?” Chase asked.
“Over a month. Dr. Kale had to bring in a surgeon. He’s lucky he didn’t lose a ball.”
“Wow, she nailed him. But Adam’s story doesn’t line up. The student that file describes is the epitome of cooperation. I mean, she excelled through first- and second-year in the course of a year. A year!”
“Some students complete courses early.”
“Yeah, by a few months. Satisfying a year’s worth of skills in six? Twice?” Chase shook his head. “No way.”
“So, the handlers in charge of the trainers realized she was advancing.” He wished Chase would let it go.
No such luck. “You don’t understand. She would have had to impress them enough to excuse her from half of two curricula. It’s unheard of, which makes her a goddamn unicorn. Something catastrophic must have screwed things up.”
Or the catastrophe happened when she was sixteen, and she was still acting out. Or maybe that was his conscience kicking the piss out of him again. His father swore those memories were wiped during the two years she spent in seclusion. She may have thought he reminded her of someone, but she obviously couldn’t place him. It stung.
“Adam and Mary insisted he stuck to the approved training.” Corbin folded his arms. There were cameras in every pleasure room according to Chase, but they were only on if a trainer or a student was suspected of stepping out of line. Both Adam and Tylar’s behavior records were clean prior to the kick. “The handlers never intervened, so if it was Adam’s fault, then the cameras weren’t on. She was the one punished.”
“All I know is that she’d never done it before, and it hasn’t happened since. The kid they assigned next completed the curriculum without injury.”
Corbin grunted. “Gross understatement. When it came time for her to transfer, Lance begged to go with her. The Institute denied the request, so he tried to fail her.”
“Word spreads fast through those barracks. I imagine Jay heard all about what happened with her previous trainers. One racked in the nuts, the other somehow bespelled. Imagine how that looks to a kid with the mentality of a high school freshman.”
Good point. The kid might be eighteen, but most of those boys wind up trapped inside the Institute from the age of sixteen, unable to leave. Already high school dropouts, they receive less education than the girls and are used in much the same way. None of them could be called emotionally mature. “You think he’s scared of her.”
“Uh, yeah. I’m not joking about the unicorn. Essentially skipping a year ahead in skills, and with what happened with Lance? It’s unheard of. They assign two or three girls per trainer to keep those hotheads from getting attached. The chances of him becoming obsessed like that should be next to nil. That girl must be something else.”
Oh, she was. “In any case, I’ve instructed Proctor Teri to stop taking in girls. The underage sector will no longer graduate into skills.”
“Why are you surprised?” It’s not like he was taking an active role in running the place since he took over. All he did was reject bids on students before going back to ignoring its existence. Which brought up another problem. How did he expect to liquidate Cellar Institute if he couldn’t bring himself to sell a single student?
“I just never expected you would shut it down. In a dysfunctional sort of way, Cellar Institute is your heritage.”
Just because his grandfather founded the place and his father had obsessed over it did not mean Corbin had to like it. If he could have escaped this life, he would have done so without hesitation. He tried to run four years ago, and the consequences had been brutal. Now that his uncle was patriarch, the repercussions would be tenfold. Kyle was the exact monster his family strived to create with each generation it forced out. An apex predator who would track him down and gut him if he tried to bolt again. His uncle threatened to do just that when he was in town for the internment.
If it weren’t for his sadistic relatives, he wouldn’t be in this mess. “Selling women is the worst scheme my family ever concocted. Which is saying something. At least the women I sleep with are aware that they can say no.” The Institute went above and beyond to ensure its students have no concept of consent.
“Yeah, well, judging by what she did to Adam, I’d say this Tylar girl figured out what consent is. A knee to the nuts is universal for no.”
It was also something he would never have expected her to do. “Jay’s time at the Institute is over, and I do not want to be responsible for the kid’s death. Can you contact Tristan and get him licensed as an unarmed guard?”
“Sure, but I do not want to be asked to kill that girl.”
He already said he didn’t want her dead. “I told Mary to seclude her for fourth-year.”
Chase hesitated, then asked, “Why not let me try?”
His hackles rose. He didn’t want Chase anywhere near her. “I thought you hated being a skill trainer.”
“This has nothing to do with wanting my old job back. And unicorn or not, her training is going to be awful. She’ll need to relearn submission, which means rougher aggression lessons. Give her to the wrong guy now, and she’ll end up beyond repair.” He shook his head before adding with an unenthusiastic mutter, “If she isn’t already.”
Chase tossed his hands. “What else are you going to do? I can only think of one outcome if a girl flunks out of that shitshow. I’ve never killed a woman, and I sure as hell don’t plan to start with this eighteen-year-old. There’s a good chance whatever started all this wasn’t even her fault.”
Corbin had alluded to Tylar that her rebellion could lead to death, though he hadn’t gone into detail. Both Chase and Corbin were well aware that the black suits were a made-up entity created to scare the girls. According to Chase, the trainer handlers never interfered directly with students, which meant the black suits had to be one of his father’s guards. If it fell on Corbin to expel Tylar, the only person he would trust to handle it was Chase.
“Look, we have a better chance to avoid killing her if you send me in there,” Chase said. “Yes, it’s a horrible situation, but I am not even joking when I say I do not want her blood on my hands. This is the lesser of two fucked up evils.”
Most trainers on the circuit were between sixteen and nineteen. Chase was twenty-eight. “You’re too old.”
“At least she’s a legal adult. If not me, then you’re going to have to give her to one of those boys. And you better believe every last one of them knows she’s been the downfall of three of their buddies. That’s a bad idea.”
As much as he hated to admit it, Chase was their best option. It would also eliminate the risk of Mary sabotaging her. His father’s favoritism put Tylar right into the proctor’s crosshairs. “I’ll think about it.”