He takes care of me in the shower again, washing me, soothing me with his touch. He’s especially careful around the tender area of my thighs and buttocks, making sure not to add to my discomfort. To my relief, it doesn’t look like the skin is broken anywhere. My ass is pink with some reddish welts, and I’m sure there will be bruising, but there is no trace of blood anywhere.

When I’m clean and dry, he guides me back to bed. He’s silent and so am I. I’m still not fully out of that strange state I was in earlier. It’s as though my mind is partially disconnected from my body. The only thing holding me together is Julian and his oddly gentle touch.

We lie down together, and Julian turns off the lights, wrapping us in darkness. I lie on my stomach, because any other position is too painful. He pulls me closer to him, so that my head is pillowed on his chest and my arm is draped over his ribcage, and I close my eyes, wanting nothing more than the oblivion of sleep.

“My father was one of the most powerful drug lords in Colombia.” Julian’s voice is barely audible, his breath ruffling the fine hair near my forehead. I had already begun to fall asleep, but I’m suddenly wide awake, my heart hammering in my chest.

“He started grooming me to be his successor when I was four years old. I held my first gun when I was six.” Julian pauses, his hand lightly stroking my hair. “I killed my first man when I was eight.”

I’m so horrified that I just lie there, frozen in place by shock.

“Maria was the daughter of one of the men in my father’s organization,” Julian continues, his voice low and emotionless. “I met her when I was thirteen, and she was twelve. She was everything that I was not. Beautiful, sweet . . . innocent. You see, unlike my father, her parents sheltered her from the reality of their lives. They wanted her to be a child, to know nothing about the ugliness of our world.

“But she was bright, like you. And curious. So very, very curious . . .” His voice trails off for a second, as though he’s lost in some memory. Then he shakes it off and resumes his story. “She followed her father one day to see what he was doing. Hid in the back of his car. I found her there because it was my job to be a lookout, to guard the meeting spot.”

I can barely breathe, unable to believe that Julian is telling me all this. Why now? Why tonight?

“I could’ve told her father, gotten her in trouble, but she begged so prettily, looked at me so sweetly with her big brown eyes that I couldn’t do it. I made one of my father’s guards take her home instead.

“After that, she came to see me on purpose. She wanted to get to know me better, she said. To be friends with me.” There is a note of remembered disbelief in Julian’s voice, as though nobody in their right mind could’ve wanted something like that.

I swallow, my heart stupidly aching for the young boy he had been once. Had he even had friends, or had his father stolen that from him too, just as he had destroyed Julian’s childhood?

“I tried to tell her that it wasn’t a good idea, that I wasn’t somebody she should be around, but she wouldn’t listen to me. She’d find me somewhere almost every week, until I had no choice but to give in and start spending time with her. We went fishing together, and she showed me how to draw.” He pauses for a second, his hand still stroking my hair. “She was very good at drawing.”

“What happened to her?” I ask when he doesn’t say anything else for a minute. My voice is strangely hoarse. I clear my throat and try again. “What happened to Maria?”

“One of my father’s rivals learned that she was seeing me. We had just raided his warehouse, and he was pissed. So he decided to teach my father a lesson . . . through me.”

Every little hair on my body is standing on end, and I feel a chill roughening my skin with goosebumps. I can already see where this story is heading, and I want to tell Julian to stop, to go no further, but I can’t get a single word past the constriction in my throat.

“They found her body in an alley near one of my father’s buildings.” His voice is steady, but I can sense the agony buried deeply within. “She had been raped, then mutilated. It was meant to be a message to me and my father. Back the fuck off, it said.”

I squeeze my eyelids together, trying to keep the tears burning my eyes from leaking out, but it’s a futile effort. I know Julian can probably feel the wetness on his chest. “A message? To a thirteen-year-old boy?”

“By that time, I was already fourteen.” I can’t see Julian’s bitter smile, but I can sense it. “And age didn’t matter. Not to my father . . . and certainly not to his rival.”

“I’m sorry.” I don’t know what else to say. I want to cry—for him, for Maria, for that young boy who’d lost his friend in such a brutal manner. And I want to cry for myself, because I now understand my captor better—and I realize that the darkness in his soul is worse than anything I could’ve imagined.

Julian shifts underneath me, and I become aware of the fact that my hand is now on his shoulder and my nails are digging into his skin. I force myself to unclench my fingers and take a deep breath. I need to get a hold on myself, or I’m going to burst out sobbing.

“I killed those men.” His tone is casual now, almost conversational, though I can feel the tension in his body. “The ones who raped her. I tracked them down and killed them, one by one. There were seven of them. After that, my father sent me away, first to America, then to Asia and Europe. He was afraid all that killing would be bad for business. I didn’t come back until years later, when he and my mother were killed by yet another rival.”