We reached the landing and the beat was even deeper, vibrating in my chest and shaking the chandelier that hung above the foyer. Cal continued forward toward an open set of double doors, exchanging pleasantries with the partygoers that crowded around. People gawked and stared, but I kept my eyes straight ahead. They could look and leer, but I held on to what Renee had told me. They couldn’t hurt me. Not tonight.
A man pushed through some guests and came up to us. Auburn hair and beady eyes—Red.
“Oh, there you are.” He glowered at Brianne.
“She’s just helping me greet my guests, Red.”
“You’re welcome to her, Cal. Anytime.” Red flicked his eyes to me before letting his gaze fall to my breasts. “Nice to see you again, Stella.”
“I can’t say likewise.” I still wanted to scratch his eyes out for how he’d treated Brianne. Then again, I was standing here holding onto a man who’d whipped my back until I bled. The scars were on display even now in this backless dress. Is that why Renee had chosen it?
Red flipped his too-long hair out of his eyes. “Still a cunt, I see.”
“Shut the fuck up, Red.” Vinemont tensed next to me, a warning.
“Don’t like it when I insult your whore?” He laughed, his teeth slightly purpled from wine.
Vinemont took a step forward and Red drew up his fists.
“Boys, boys. Save it for Christmas!” Cal laughed and patted them both on the back. “I’ve come up with a pretty clever way for you to release your aggressions, trust me.”
Fight or flight kicked alive inside me again. My stomach churned and bile rose in my throat. Renee’s tale of her Christmas trial was bad enough, but I knew Cal would make mine as horrible as possible. I had a momentary flash of trying to kill him. Maybe slipping down to the kitchen and grabbing a knife and slitting his throat right in front of all these ghouls. Would that end it? Would that stop the entire corrupted machinery from turning? Or would I just put a new Sovereign in charge sooner than expected?
“You and I are going to have a very Merry Christmas, Stella. Count on it.” Red backed away and grabbed the nearest woman before sinking his tongue into her mouth. She moaned and went limp, letting him reach up her short skirt and finger her.
Vinemont took my elbow, roughly this time.
Cal clapped his hands and gripped Brianne. “That’s more like it. Now, come on. I want to show you the fun.”
We followed him toward the large double doors where the sound emanated from. The room beyond was dark, but we plunged ahead. The music grew louder, a techno beat. It was a ballroom on a much smaller scale than the one at the Oakman estate. Still, it was large and took up almost the whole second floor.
Nude men and women writhed to the music on four platforms that dotted the room. Stuffy paintings and ornate sconces lined the walls, totally discordant with the scene. Couches sat against the periphery, some occupied by people doing drugs or having sex, sometimes a mix of both. I couldn’t tell if they were more frightening now that they were unmasked.
I should have realized at the ball that these people had no limits. But now I knew the ball wasn’t an anomaly. It was them. This—the woman snorting coke off a man’s hard cock, the two men fucking while a semi-circle formed to watch, the needles and the glassy eyed women—this was what these people were.
“Isn’t it something?” Cal yelled over the din.
“Impressive.” Lucius nodded, his gaze glued to the nearest platform where one woman knelt and licked between another’s legs.
“I like to throw these parties every so often. Keep things fun as Sovereign. This one is a welcome party, of course. But I certainly hope the next Sovereign keeps the tradition of impromptu get-togethers alive.” He yanked Brianne into his side and looked from Vinemont to Lucius. “But which one of you is in the running?”
“I am.” Vinemont and Lucius spoke in unison, though their voices barely carried over the music.
Cal shook his head and glanced to Brianne. He grabbed her chin roughly and pulled her face to his. “Only one, isn’t that right little Acquisition?”
“Y-yes. One.” She nodded, seemingly even more out of it than she had been downstairs.
Cal turned back to us, his face stone cold sober, all hint of a smile gone. “Sinclair, you know the rules. Did she choose him or not?”
Vinemont snaked his arm around my middle. “She did, but—”
“But nothing, Sin.” Cal’s face broke in a wide smile, the façade back in place. “Lucius, my favorite sugar magnate, looks like you’re in the running.”
“I am. She’s mine.” Lucius stepped closer to me.
“Excellent, excellent. Now, has Sinclair given you all the rules or do I need to give a little lesson?”