We are taking book requests on our companion website. You can request books here. Make sure, you are following the rules.

The Broken Protector: Chapter 21

ROSES ARE RED (DELILAH)

Somebody remind me again why I ever wanted to work things out with that ginormous asshole in uniform?

I’m having trouble remembering.

I glare at myself in the mirror perched on the vanity of my room at The Rookery. I only make myself stop because it’s a little hard to put on wing-tip eyeliner when you’re giving yourself premature wrinkles.

Ugh.

I try shoving Lucas out of my mind for the hundredth time, just focusing on my makeup and hair and nothing else.

I have no earthly idea how to dress for tonight, let alone how to act for a party full of celebrities, but I should at least make an effort pretending I do.

I finish lining my right eye and stop, studying my reflection in the mirror.

The makeup isn’t the problem.

There’s something lodged in my throat. That’s the only reason it hurts so terribly right now.

Yeah.

Not because for just a second, I saw a horrible coincidence as I stared at my own reflection.

I look like Emma Santos.

My black hair piled up into an intentionally messy chignon just like hers was when I found her.

My skin might be tanned, not naturally dark like hers, but both of us are golden-kissed and slender-boned.

And that bracelet on my wrist…

The one I’ve been wearing on our last two meetings at the café, so Ulysses will actually think whatever he’s trying with me will work and won’t question me abruptly agreeing to Montero’s invitation to the party.

Don’t do this, Delilah.

I can’t tell if that voice in my head is mine, some echo of my mother’s, or what I imagine Emma sounded like.

For an instant, I swear there’s someone behind me, a thin figure with sad eyes.

But when I whip around, searching behind me, searching the room, there’s no one.

Apparently, I’ve gone from imagining ghosts to seeing them.

And Emma Santos is definitely begging me to find out if Montero Arrendell killed her, but not if it means getting myself killed in the process.

God.

I should’ve told Lucas.

I should’ve told him what I was planning and brought him on board. But I’d might as well ask for a flying unicorn to ride into the party on.

I’ve been avoiding him so Ulysses won’t get upset, won’t get suspicious or feel like Lucas is male competition. If Ulysses gets rattled and jealous enough to drop me, this whole thing falls apart.

It cuts me in half, pretending like I can’t even see him, because I never know who might be watching and reporting back to Ulysses.

Or worse, to Montero.

I can’t stand the idea that the Arrendell patriarch might destroy Lucas the way he hurt Celeste, just to get him out of the way.

I also can’t stomach sitting around and waiting for that to happen.

So I have to end this now.

But when I saw Lucas earlier, for the briefest moment my heart leaped into my throat, this brilliant burst of joy.

How could it leave any doubt in my mind?

I’m definitely in love with Redhaven’s messiest, most sarcastic dick in uniform.

Until he had to go and open his mouth.

He came storming over like a raging bull, snarling at me over the bracelet and being the possessive butthead he is. My temper flared and next thing I knew, we were shouting at each other in the street and I was too mad to try to reason with him.

How does he do it?

How is it this man makes me see nothing but red… and somehow I still love him?

I almost enjoy being pissed at him.

But I enjoy the quiet moments where he looks at me like I’m the only thing that matters infinitely more.

That’s us.

We fight so furiously it’s no wonder we fuck so passionately. And I have a feeling, if this would all go away and we actually had a chance…

We could figure out how to be amazing together to fight our way back from the brink and still care for each other.

It would only make us stronger.

Frowning, my fingers clench the eyeliner stick.

I stare at my phone on the vanity next to my glittery black clutch purse.

I should call him. So we can both apologize and break through our caging pride. So I can tell him what I’m doing—

But I know he’ll try to talk me out of it.

He might be right, too, when what I’m about to do would land me on a Too Stupid to Live Heroines list, if this were a romance novel.

But I need to know.

When I talk to Lucas again, I want to give him the proof that he was right all along.

Proof that he can get justice for his sister.

Proof that I can get justice for Emma.

I will my fingers to stop shaking, finish my eyes, and touch up my lips. Just as I’m finishing up the last accents on my deep, smoky red eyeshadow and making sure my foundation blends into my hairline, there’s a polite knock at the door.

I smile.

Only Janelle Bowden would knock like a guest in her own bed and breakfast.

“It’s open!” I call, tucking my makeup into the purse in case I need it later.

In the mirror, I see the door creak open.

Janelle peeks in past the crack like she’s checking to see if I’m decent before she squeezes in with a rustling black garment bag draped over her arm.

She carries it like it’s the most precious thing. Past the bottom, I can just make out a fringe of something shimmery and red inside.

Red dress.

Just like Emma, I think with a cold dread that makes my skin crawl. Or maybe I’m just cold.

The summer heat has finally broken and there’s a crisp bite of autumn in the air, but that’s not the real reason I shrivel up.

“You mean they really sent me a designer dress?” I ask cheerfully.

“I wouldn’t make a fuss out of it if they didn’t,” she says dryly, laying the bag on the bed. “I do believe it’s Mrs. Arrendell’s. She’ll never wear a dress twice, so it’d go to waste if she didn’t give them to gorgeous young women who need a little dolling up.”

“No, that’s not weird,” I mutter, mostly to myself. “Invite me to a fancy party in his mother’s dress…”

Janelle gives me a shrewd look. “I suppose it would be strange, if this were a date with young Ulysses,” she teases knowingly. “Is it a date? I see the way he looks at you, hon.”

Revulsion hits like a sucker punch.

Just as strong as the rising urge to run out into the night, find Lucas, and throw myself into his arms.

But no.

I could never want someone like Ulysses Arrendell.

He’s a pale, dead ember to the fire of Lucas Graves.

I clear my throat, hoping she didn’t notice the little falter in my smile.

“I really don’t think it’s a date, Janelle. More like… I don’t know. Schmoozing the new teacher? Honestly, I think Ulysses is just trying to be nice after all the bad things that’ve happened.”

“Oh, yes, he’s like that. He’s a kind boy behind all his flash.” She clucks her tongue and fiddles with the zipper on the garment bag. “Now, let’s get you pretty and dressed up. Their butler called and I think he said they’ll be sending a car for you in about twenty minutes.”

Any response I might’ve had dries up in my mouth as she unzips the bag and exposes the dress waiting inside.

No matter how weirded out I am, the dress is drop-dead gorgeous. Strapless with a scalloped bodice, a deep shade of crimson.

From chest to hips, the fabric is shirred in a wrap style with subtle gemstones studded throughout. They’re as small as glitter chips and so carefully laid they’re only visible when they catch the light.

The skirt that flares out from the tight sheath comes in rippling layers, cut so that when I put it on, it’ll skim my knees in the front, but sheet down around me in a train that nearly goes to the floor in the back.

I feel too ordinary for a dress like that.

And if I’m going to be beautiful wearing it, Ulysses Arrendell definitely isn’t the one I want admiring me.

Another girl in a red dress.

I shiver, curling my arms around myself.

I guess Janelle takes that shiver for awe or nerves because she gives me an indulgent smile. “Let me help you into it, dear. The zipper in the back might be a bit tricky.”

“A-ah, yes. Thank you.”

I let her coax me out of my towel.

She teases me about my sleek lacy underthings, but I don’t really hear her.

I’m prickling with goose bumps as the dress slips over me in silky layers, then zips up tight as a binding cage.

My heart keeps pounding.

For the first time, I’m actually scared.

But when have I ever let fear stop me from doing something bold?

Once she’s helped me adjust the fit, Janelle holds me at arm’s length with a fond smile.

“There you go,” she says. “Pretty as a picture!” She turns me gently toward the mirror. “Have a look.”

I don’t want to.

For some ungodly reason, I don’t want to really see myself in this dress.

Maybe I’m worried I’ll see Emma’s face staring back at me.

I instinctively balk, but before I have to explain myself, there’s a loud honk from downstairs.

Janelle releases my shoulders, glancing at the window. “Oh, I believe your ride is here!”

“I’d better get moving.” I offer her a smile and snatch my purse, slipping the phone inside it. “Thanks for the help. You’re a dream.”

“Of course, Delilah. After everything you’ve been through, you deserve to be a princess for one night.”

Bless her heart.

I mean it.

Only, I don’t feel like a princess as I scramble away. More like a soldier marching into combat.

I flash her another smile, then gather up my skirts, slip my feet into my strappy black heels, and dart outside.

I’m expecting a town car waiting at the end of the walk. More likely just a black sedan with blackout windows—I don’t know, I have a strange idea of what rich people ride around in.

I’m definitely not expecting the full-blown stretch limousine parked on the curb, complete with a suited driver wearing white gloves. He stands next to the back door, just waiting for me.

Holy shit.

I stumble to a halt.

What’s weirder is, I’ve never seen this man in town at all, and I’ve been around long enough that I’m starting to recognize people by faces, if not by names.

I wonder if there’s a whole village up at that massive manor, house staff who exist solely to make the Arrendells’ lives easier with no roots in Redhaven at all.

I’m hesitant as I draw closer to the gate and push it open.

Part of me thinks this can’t possibly be meant for a girl like me, growing up and getting passed around like a worn hand-me-down. Now here I am climbing into a limo in a dress that probably costs more than my annual salary.

The man even bows.

“Miss Clarendon,” he says, opening the car door for me, leaving no mistake.

I’m almost expecting Ulysses to be inside, but it’s empty.

The interior is a plush, deep, velvety grey with seats like butter.

I settle inside, making sure to gather my skirts, and smile at the driver.

He just nods respectfully and shuts the door before rounding to the driver’s side.

The last thing I see as the car pulls out is Janelle. She’s standing in the gold-lit open door of The Rookery, waving to me like my very own fairy godmother.

It’s a strange feeling, gliding into Redhaven in a limousine.

It’s already late, so most people are tucked away at home. But there are enough families still milling around on the sidewalk.

I catch a few quick double takes before the limousine turns onto the winding paved lane that climbs up the hill to the Arrendell house.

From a distance, I knew the house was massive, but up close?

It’s imposing.

An enormous baroque beast of stone at least five stories tall, all narrow glowing windows and climbing pillars with a cobblestone courtyard.

A fountain centers the circular space, turning it into a roundabout.

Shimmering lights in crystal fixtures illuminate steps at least a hundred feet wide, climbing at least a full flight up to the arched doorway.

As we draw closer, I realize there are a few more limos on the lane ahead of us, and pulling up to those steps—my stomach flips over as I realize I’m looking at the star of the latest big superhero action film.

Her blonde hair glows in the night as her driver helps her out at the foot of the steps before driving her limousine away.

I am so hopelessly out of my depth here.

I watch a few more movie starlets and a couple of well-known tech industry billionaires exit their limousines before it’s my turn.

I feel like an insect with this giant house looming over me like a living thing.

Easily crushed.

Effortlessly erased.

My chest caves in, but I gather my courage and look down at the bracelet on my wrist.

Emma, give me courage.

I wrap my fingers around it, pressing it against my skin until the rose gold warms, hot as flesh.

I can do this.

For Emma.

So I put on my best smile as the driver ushers me out of the car, gesturing to the base of those steps.

The night feels warm after being in the limo’s cool interior. It heightens the chills running down my spine.

I tell myself it’s just the temperature change—not the man who appears at the head of the stairs like he’s been waiting for me and counting down the seconds.

Ulysses Arrendell.

For a moment, I think it’s Montero.

It’s the way they carry themselves, I think, their similar builds. Something equally arrogant and knowing in their body language. The confidence of wealthy men that strides across generations, I guess.

With his face shadowed, it’s only the glint of the crystal lights off his blond hair that tells me I’m dealing with the younger one.

I want to shake him.

I want to scream in his face and ask, how much do you know?

Are you just as complicit, or are you nothing but your father’s patsy?

But the words stick in the back of my throat as he struts down the stairs like the peacock he is, obviously presenting himself for my approval.

He’s wearing some strange hybrid tuxedo-suit, precisely tailored to his frame.

Objectively, he looks nice.

I’m just not interested.

“Delilah.” He nearly purrs my name as he draws into reach, holding out both hands. “You are a vision tonight. I’m glad as hell you decided to come.”

“I thought I could use a stress-free night. A little champagne never hurt a girl,” I answer, hoping my reluctance doesn’t show as I slip my hands into his. “Thank you again for inviting me.”

“You’ll have to thank my father. It was his idea. I am infinitely grateful to him, though.” Jeez. There’s something a little too intimate about the way his eyes flash over me, lingering on the bracelet as he clasps my hands, then lets go to offer me his arm. His eyes glitter with warmth. “Come. Let me introduce you to a few movie executives. Just as long as you promise not to let them steal you away from me for their next blockbuster.”

I snort, slipping my hand into his arm.

“No actress aspirations here,” I say. “That ended when I was sixteen.”

I don’t mention that I’m planning to put on an Oscar-worthy performance tonight.

It’s overwhelming when Ulysses leads me up the stone steps under that towering archway.

The entry hall of the house alone is larger than my entire cottage with its black-and-white patterned marble floors. A black velvet runner rug leads even deeper into the cavernous home.

Everything is all white stone, antique bronze fixtures, expensive odds and ends with naked cherub statues and bronze sculptures and draperies, all strewn around with fresh flowers tucked in every corner.

White. Lilies of the Valley, I think.

Don’t those flowers usually mean death?

That’s a little on the nose, or else it’s just my awful imagination.

Several hallways and staircases snake off from the entryway. Ulysses leads me down a tall, narrow, black-carpeted hall, past several closed doors of weathered oak so ancient it’s nearly black.

The entire time he says nothing, but he looks down at me like he can’t get his fill.

I struggle not to flinch away.

I keep my head bowed like I’m just shy. I distract myself from the weirdness, watching the small cluster of people up ahead, only to blink as one man turns his head and I catch his elegant, sloping profile, spectacles, distinctive jaw, and wild hair roughed back in a ponytail tonight.

I actually stumble.

“Is th-that…?”

“In the flesh. He needed a break from the bruising defamation case with his ex-wife. Such a circus,” Ulysses answers dryly. “No Oompa-Loompas or pirates with him tonight, I’m afraid. I might be able to introduce you, but he is a tad prickly. He might be kind, or he might keep you all night boasting about his next film project. He’s like that.”

I can’t help laughing. “I’m fine with watching from a distance, thanks. I’ve seen enough of that drama on Twitter and TikTok.”

“Can’t blame you. He may be an interesting man, but he is exhausting.”

I won’t lie.

Even if I’m tense, scared, putting on an act, I’m legit starstruck by the company the Arrendells keep.

By the time the carpeted hallway opens into a grand ballroom with ceilings so high I can barely see them in the shadows, I’ve seen half the Billboard Top 20, the entire cast of the latest MCU TV franchise, and a quiet, unassuming man in a finely tailored suit who personally owns about ten percent of the world’s global worth.

It’s so dizzying it’s a minor miracle I don’t barf.

So is the sheer scale of the ballroom.

The center floor is already swirling with people dancing, black suits and bright dresses making a kaleidoscope of grace.

All around me, people lounge at tables in cozy groups with chaises and divans and other comfortable places to stretch out and perform their art of looking effortlessly beautiful.

I just about choke on my own breath when one of the highest paid supermodels in the world glides past, glances over me, and gives me a cool but sweet smile.

“Banging dress,” she murmurs before she floats by.

“I—” I swallow. “I can’t tell if she meant that or not.”

“Oh, she did. Her face is just frozen that way, and it’s impossible for her to not sound like she’s mocking you.” Ulysses chuckles. “Don’t let it overwhelm you. They’re ordinary people behind their status, just like you, I promise.”

“The hell they are,” I mutter.

Too loud.

That actually makes him laugh. “You are a delight, Delilah.”

“So,” a smooth voice says behind us. “Is this the one you and father won’t shut up about then?”

Ulysses’ mouth thins.

He rolls his eyes and mouths, “Brace yourself” before we turn to face the speaker.

I instantly recognize Xavier Arrendell from Google. He’s a carbon copy of Ulysses, but a few years older.

A bit taller and coarser, his hair shorter and his saber-sharp cheekbones undercut by a slightly unkempt blond beard. He looks me over with cool green eyes, his mouth curled cynically.

His navy-blue suit sits on him handsomely, shimmering faintly in the light from the crystal chandelier overhead.

With a sigh, Ulysses says, “If he can bother to mind his manners, Delilah, I’d like to introduce you to my older brother, Xavier.”

“I can bother my manners just fine, but can you mind your dalliances?” Xavier says flatly. “You make too many headlines, brother.”

I sputter, shaking my head quickly.

“We’re not together,” I say. “I’m the pity invite. The new schoolteacher. I’m not cut out to be part of your world.”

Ulysses makes an odd sound that actually sounds a little hurt.

Xavier gives me the strangest look.

His gaze dips down to my hand on Ulysses’ arm—the bracelet on my wrist. There’s something bitter and hard in his eyes.

“Is that what you think you are?” he asks.

Eesh.

I don’t even know what to make of that. But I don’t get a chance to fumble for a reply to that oddly ominous statement when a whirlwind of color comes sweeping into us.

A tall, slim blond man with a long shower of hair and a blinding violet suit wraps his arms around Xavier’s neck from behind, resting his chin on Xavier’s shoulder.

“Don’t be an asshole, Xav,” the man—must be Aleksander Arrendell, couldn’t be anyone else—says. “Ulysses brought the most darling toy to play with. Be nice.” Merry green eyes fix on me, set in a narrow porcelain-like face. “I’m Aleksander, but you can just call me Sandy.”

“No one calls you Sandy,” Xavier grunts in disgust. “Not even you. Now get the hell off me!”

Ulysses quirks a brow and gives me an almost conspiratorial look. “Now do you see why I spend so much time in town, while they go gallivanting around the world?”

“They’re charming,” I say dryly. “Really.”

But the way they look at me makes me uncomfortable.

Like I really am just a toy.

Catnip, maybe.

And these brothers are very hungry, intimidating cats.

Ulysses exhales. “If they’re done staring, Delilah, let’s go mingle.” As a waiter walks past, he reaches out and snags a champagne flute for me. “Champagne?”

“Please.” I take it quickly. “I think I should be drunker for this.”

But not too drunk, a little voice screams. Keep your guard up.

Xavier snorts at me and mutters a “Nice to meet you,” but he’s already walking away.

Aleksander lingers, looking at me thoughtfully.

“You’re different,” he says slowly.

I frown. “Different from…?”

“Oh, never mind,” he says quickly, bending at the waist in an exaggerated bow. His silky hair pours over his shoulder. “A pleasure to meet you, Delilah Clarendon. We hope to see more of you.”

Ulysses coaxes me away. “Come. I promise I won’t let anyone here eat you.”

“Not even your brothers?” I joke, following him and pressing my mouth to the rim of my glass—but I don’t drink.

God, I wouldn’t mind a little something to take the edge off right now, but I can’t dull my senses.

The temptation is almost too much, though, as Ulysses whirls me through his social groups.

Five minutes later, I feel more like an accessory than a person, but I’m kind of okay with that when no one seems to expect me to say more than a few friendly words.

I’ve said ’nice to meet you’ more times than I can count after I’ve met over a dozen people so famous they don’t even bother introducing themselves. They just assume I know who they are—and they’re right.

It’s almost a relief when someone taps me on the shoulder, pulling me and Ulysses away from yet another dizzying introduction to a man who spends his time trolling the internet when he’s not launching more rockets than NASA.

But this man needs no introduction.

Montero Arrendell.

The entire time Ulysses spun me through the people mill, I’ve been scanning around for the patriarch and matriarch of the Arrendell empire, but haven’t seen them.

So it’s disconcerting to suddenly be looking up into his inscrutable green eyes.

He watches me with a small smile, oozing his Clark Gable charm with his black hair parted and waxed neatly to one side, his slim mustache groomed, his suit impeccable.

“Delilah,” he says warmly, reaching for my upper arms.

My skin tries to crawl right off me.

It’s insane how hard it is to force a smile.

“May I steal her?” He glances at his son.

Oh God, oh God.

Ulysses looks less than pleased. His gentlemanly smile never wavers, but his mouth goes tight and twitchy.

“Lady’s choice,” he clips.

Yikes.

I know I’m supposed to refuse right now. I’m supposed to flutter around and say I want to stay with Ulysses, lean on his arm and cling just a little harder.

But this is my chance.

This is my chance to get closer to Montero and see if he gives away anything I can use.

So I flash Ulysses an apologetic smile, then turn a warmer one on Montero as I slip my hand free from Ulysses’ arm and step closer to his father.

“I’d love to dance.”

“You delight me, young lady.” Montero rolls the words with that lyrical accent that smells like old money, offering his arm.

I slip away with a repressed shudder and let Ulysses take my untouched champagne flute.

One last look back at Ulysses now.

I’m playing my part, acting like I’m missing him already—and then it’s straight into the devil’s arms.

I let Montero lead me through the tangle of flowing, perfectly statuesque bodies and out onto the dance floor.

The crowd parts and a little space clears for us, making us the center of attention as he takes both my hands and guides one to his shoulder, pulling me into a waltz.

Ugh.

I’ve never waltzed in my life.

But Montero makes it feel so effortless. All I have to do is follow his steps and try not to barf at the nauseating feeling of being in this man’s arms.

He’s watching me shrewdly tonight.

I wonder what he’s looking for, my heart thumping nervously, until he continues as if he’d never left off.

“Like I said, you delight me, Miss Clarendon. But not nearly so much, I think, as you delight my son.”

There’s a long silence between us, filled only with the music of the live orchestra in their dim corner, the movements of our feet, the sounds of conversation and laughter all around us.

Before I look away pointedly, trying to make myself blush even though it doesn’t seem to be cooperating when I feel so cold.

“I don’t know what you mean, Mr. Arrendell…”

“I think you do.” His fingers tighten on mine. I look up into a gaze burning like a cruel green sun, like he’s trying to drag me into his undertow by the sheer force of his personality. “Ulysses is smitten with you. I can’t help but wonder how you feel about him.”

Sweet Jesus.

There’s something so off here.

On the surface, he sounds like a man curious about a girl his son might be serious about, just asking probing questions to protect his family.

But there’s a different edge to it.

Almost like he thinks I owe him an answer, something personal.

Maybe I’m imagining it, but I wonder if this is how a man would sound if the girl he’s been stalking and terrorizing was paying attention to anyone but him.

Especially with how his hand rests just above the small of my back, skin to skin where the plunging back of the gown leaves my spine exposed, leaving me feeling slimy everywhere his hand touches.

It’s almost possessive.

I don’t like it.

I don’t like anyone touching me that way but Lucas.

I choke down pure revulsion, searching for an answer that doesn’t blow this whole thing.

“Yes, he’s been lovely to me ever since I moved here. Always doing his best to take care of me, despite…” I let my voice hitch. “Despite everything, really.”

Montero nods gravely and leads me into another turn.

“Ah, yes. I don’t blame you, my dear, if you’re still upset over such grisly business. You’ve had quite the run of bad luck. When we spoke before, I meant to convey my condolences regarding the young man who died. You were acquainted, were you not?”

This time I’m not faking the way my breath sucks in.

It hurts.

Yes, Roger was a creep, but he still shouldn’t have wound up gutted in a town he didn’t even know.

“Yes.” I swallow hard. “He was my ex-boyfriend. I didn’t—we didn’t have anything between us anymore. I broke up with him, but…” Licking my lips, I lower my eyes. “I just wish he hadn’t died like that.”

And I wish I wasn’t in the arms of a possible murderer.

know all signs point to the Jacobins, but that doesn’t rule out Montero having a hand in it.

There’s something running deeper here, and the bracelet on my wrist feels like the key.

“Shameful. Just as shameful as the fact that the police haven’t come close to identifying the perpetrator yet.” He tsks, his eyes hardening. His grip draws me in closer until our bodies are almost touching. I fight not to cringe away from the crawling heat of his skin. “We’ll need to have a talk at the next budget meeting with Chief Bowden, I think. I’m concerned where they’re allocating their resources.”

Defensiveness snaps inside me and I force it down, keeping my voice neutral. “They’re trying. I can’t imagine they’re used to dealing with anything like this in a town as small as Redhaven, right?”

“This town does have its surprises, but you’re correct,” Montero muses. He looks at me for a long, strange moment, his mouth tightening before it relaxes into an easy smile. “I think I feel eyes burning a hole in the back of my head. Perhaps my son would like to cut in.” He spins me around until I see Ulysses, loitering against the wall and watching us with his mouth set in a broody frown. “He doesn’t like to share.”

Before I can remind him that I’m not Ulysses’ to share, Montero bends closer.

Too close.

His breath feels wet and hot near my ear as he whispers, “But I do delight in watching him enjoy himself.”

I’m frozen.

Struggling not to shove him and give myself away—but he pulls back slowly. His jaw brushes my cheek and he releases me with an almost triumphant smile.

My tongue is ice.

It’s so bad I’m actually a little grateful for Ulysses coming to save me. He crosses the dance floor to take my arm.

“I take it your dance is over,” he says, giving his father a flinty look. He glances down at me, handing over my champagne. “You look like you need to sit, Delilah. Would you mind if I took a moment to speak with my father while you rest?”

“No, that’s fine,” I say weakly.

Actually, that’s perfect.

Even as the two men walk away with their heads close together, I take quick stock of my surroundings before making a beeline toward a weird flower-covered circular sofa. I picked it for three reasons.

One, there’s no one else on it.

Two, it’s out of the way, tucked off in a darker corner where no one will notice me.

And three, it’s close to a winding staircase of dark, glossy wood that looks like it leads up to the private chambers of the house.

This is my chance.

I settle down on the sofa, pulling myself together for a moment and resting my champagne on the wooden top of the little upholstered pillar in the center.

No way I’m touching it now, especially not after leaving it unattended with a rich weirdo I barely know.

For a few minutes, I watch the glitterati swirling around.

This isn’t anywhere I want to be for much longer, anyway.

Glances are turning more heated.

A few people are breaking into spontaneous make-out sessions on the dance floor, a few I even know are married or seeing someone who isn’t the person in their arms.

Some of the seating arrangements become petting zoos, hungry hands sliding under skirts and down pants.

This may be a charity gala, but people are definitely here to give away more than their money.

Not my scene.

Not my circus.

I can’t see Ulysses or Montero anymore, but I wait a little longer just in case. Ulysses has a bad habit of materializing out of nowhere.

When the crowd shifts enough so they’re a barrier between me and the rest of the floor, it’s go time.

Gathering my skirts, I dash to the stairs.

I’ve got to be quick. This red dress makes me a beacon in any normal lighting.

Glancing over my shoulder every other step and trying not to trip, I race upstairs.

No one looks at me. Nobody notices.

They’re all drunk on booze and lust.

I don’t stop until I’m behind a pillar, flattening myself against the striated marble, breathing hard.

Okay.

Okay.

I look around again, then eye the dark, narrow hall leading off the small railed walkway circling the ballroom and overlooking the main floor.

Try to be as quiet as possible.

I kick my shoes off and hook two fingers in them. The velvety carpet helps, making my stride stealthier.

With one last glance over my shoulder, I slip into the hall and let the shadows envelop me.

This place is a labyrinth.

I’m not even sure what I’m looking for as I peek into one room after another.

Of course, there are a ton of bathrooms, a music room, a billiards room, a study, and what looks like guest rooms with adjacent servants’ quarters.

I’m surprised I haven’t bumped into any of the house staff, but I guess they’re all too busy taking care of the crowd downstairs.

It’s like they have specialized rooms for everything from playing darts to reading. The library is such a dream I actually linger, unable to help being impressed.

All those old books.

Their smell rolls up my nostrils like ancient perfume.

Lucas would love it.

So do they have a special murder room, too? I wonder.

I snort at myself—and nearly choke on it when the next room I peek in, there’s the starlet I saw getting out of her limousine when we pulled up.

Only now she’s snorting a messy line of cocaine off a very attractive young man with his waiter’s uniform open, making a table out of his washboard abs. Stifling a squeak, I jerk back before they see me.

Definitely not my crowd.

I creep past the doorway, but they never notice me. Thank God.

After checking a few more rooms, I finally reach the end of the hallway and another stairwell leading up to the next level.

That’s where I find it.

Lavish multiroom suites take up entire wings of the building. Some of them are unoccupied, but a few are clearly being used by the family.

If I can find the one belonging to Lucia and Montero—assuming they even share living quarters—I might be able to find something. Emma’s phone, something personal of hers that maybe he’d have kept like any serial killer keeping a trophy from his victims.

But I stop as I open one door on a luxurious suite decorated in walnut wood and burgundy velvet.

I know it’s Ulysses’ room immediately because I recognize some of the fine suits thrown casually over the sitting room furniture.

He’s got the most expensive tastes with so many fine collectors’ items, including the bits and pieces of women’s jewelry scattered on dressers.

On the table of the vanity, against one wall, too.

My throat closes as I step closer. My own washed-out reflection stares back at me with the image of my own sick realization, my horror, on full display.

But I’m not looking at a reflection or at myself.

I’m stuck on a photo tucked in the mirror’s corner.

A shot of Emma Santos, but not one from her Instagram.

Because in this one?

She’s wearing the same red dress I found her in. It swirls around her, captured mid-spin, just as she’s turning to look coyly back at the photographer.

My insides twist in a knot.

Holy shit.

Holy shit.

…it wasn’t Montero at all.

It was Ulysses.

Ulysses killed Emma Santos.

And if that red dress is any hint, he intends to kill me next.

“I wish you hadn’t done that,” Ulysses growls behind me with weary impatience, his voice so close it shivers down the back of my neck.

I start to whirl—

But I never get the chance.

Something cold stings the side of my neck, and it’s not my heart turning into brittle ice.

I barely catch a flash of soulless, empty tea-green eyes before I collapse, before my legs go numb and drop me down a bottomless abyss.


Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Options

not work with dark mode
Reset