The limo pulled up to the curb at the entrance of Chairman Hayes’s Long Island mansion, and Nadia dug deep in search of an untapped reserve of energy. Her throat scratched with the early warning signs of a cold, and if she had any choice she’d be cuddled up in bed with a good book and a cup of hot tea, not spending the next four or five hours at a wedding reception. However, this was the event of the season, and she’d heard her mother’s lecture on the duties of an Executive enough times to know it by heart. Attending state events was on the top of that list, so staying home was not an option.
A liveried attendant hurried to open the limo’s door. Gerald and Esmeralda Lake, Nadia’s parents, exited first, posing and smiling for the photographers while Nadia stayed momentarily hidden behind the limo’s tinted windows. She wrinkled her nose at the stately mansion, hating the place. Chairman Hayes had built it shortly after Paxco had bought out what was then the state of New York. It had been the first in a long line of dominoes that had eventually led to the transformation of the United States of America into today’s Corporate States. The mansion was a monument to the Chairman’s ego, not an actual home meant to be lived in.
Too bad she would have to live in it someday.
Nadia plastered a smile on her face and exited the limo. Cameras flashed from all around her, and the photographers called out orders for her to turn this way and that. The good news was that only the most respected—and well-behaved—reporters had been invited to cover this event, so everyone was being very polite, and if her smile drooped or she blinked at an inconvenient moment, those photos wouldn’t show up on the net.
The mansion was positively aglow, golden light flooding every visible window. White bunting draped the marble-columned porch, and a bloodred carpet drew a path between the driveway and the front door. From outside, Nadia could hear the lively music that said the reception was in full swing. The atmosphere might have been festive, if it weren’t for all the armed guards who tried futilely to fade into the background. Even at its most joyful and relaxed, the mansion had teeth, and only an idiot would forget that.
Nadia kept the polished smile plastered on her face as she and her parents made their way through the gauntlet of photographers, and she didn’t let it slip while going through the endless receiving line. Her cheeks ached by the time she and her parents stepped into the ballroom, a vision of antique elegance with its crystal chandeliers, soaring ceilings, and large parquet dance floor on which no one was yet dancing. Arrangements of white flowers abounded, with the occasional splash of pink or yellow for contrast. The mingled scents of gardenias and roses made her nose itch. Liveried waiters made the rounds, offering cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, and the Executives of Paxco and Synchrony mingled to celebrate the alliance between their two states that would be cemented by this wedding.
As soon as they entered the ballroom, Nadia and her parents went their separate ways. She was expected to mingle, but she was on the lookout for an inconspicuous corner she could park herself in. Her cold was gaining ground, and the last thing she wanted to do was engage in a round of social sparring. She snagged a glass of champagne punch from one of the servers and edged her way toward the wall, eying one of the enormous flower arrangements. It might be tall enough to completely hide her from view if she stood in just the right spot. Then she wouldn’t have to—
“Nadia!” cried a delighted voice from behind her, and Nadia fought a sigh.
Forcing another smile, she turned to face Jewel Howard, who looked painfully perfect with her blond ringlets and her frothy pink gown. As always, Jewel was flanked by her younger sister, Cherry, and their mutual friend, Blair. The Terrible Trio never failed to show up at any event where they might find fodder for their favorite pastimes of malicious gossip and intimidation. Unfortunately, their families were the cream of the Executive crop, so protocol required Nadia to act as if they were all best friends.
“Your gown is simply stunning,” Jewel said while giving Nadia the requisite air kisses. “I could never wear that color without looking like a ghost.”
Jewel’s skin was the same unblemished alabaster as Nadia’s, and while Nadia was confident her royal-blue gown wasn’t too dark for her skin tone, she hated the frisson of doubt Jewel’s comment triggered. The society columnists would eviscerate her if they felt she’d chosen the wrong gown for the occasion. There was an edge in Cherry’s and Blair’s smiles as they enjoyed their leader’s backhanded compliment. Ordinarily, Nadia would have shot back an appropriate rejoinder, but tonight she just wondered if she could give them all her cold if she breathed on them enough. The image of Jewel with a runny red nose was almost cheering.
Nadia took a sip of her punch, which was watery and way too sweet. The bubbles in the champagne irritated her throat on the way down, and she stifled a cough. “Wasn’t the ceremony beautiful?” she said in her best imitation of a gush, knowing the Terrible Trio couldn’t resist the opportunity to dissect every moment of the wedding. Nadia might not enjoy the gossip and small talk that were the most prized skills of girls of her station, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t good at it. She put in just enough commentary to keep the conversation going, and though she internally winced at some of the Trio’s most vicious critiques, at least their malice wasn’t aimed at her. For once.
Nadia let her attention stray from the conversation, her eyes scanning the ballroom, and that’s when she saw him.
Nathaniel Edison Hayes, Chairman Heir of Paxco, was flat-out gorgeous. His dark, unruly hair had been slicked back for this formal occasion, and he wore the standard black tux, but there was always an aura of contained energy around him that made him stand out in a crowd. His deep blue eyes sparked with mischief.
Nate was talking to some stuffed shirt Nadia didn’t know, but he seemed to have a sixth sense where she was concerned, his eyes straying unerringly to hers practically the moment she caught sight of him. He grinned at her, and there it was, that glint in his eyes. He said something to the stuffed shirt—something offensive, or at least not particularly polite, based on the man’s outraged expression—then turned away from him as if he didn’t exist, making his way through the crowd toward her. As future Chairman of Paxco, Nate could get away with behavior that would have lesser Executives ostracized.
Nadia smiled back at the boy she was destined to marry, enjoying the view more than she liked to admit. He would be any girl’s dream husband: rich and powerful and handsome. And Nadia was more than happy with their betrothal. Well, not betrothal, exactly. Their parents had agreed to the match when Nate was six and Nadia was four, but they couldn’t be legally betrothed until they’d both reached eighteen, and Nadia still had two more years to go. Two more years of watching every well-bred girl in Paxco throw herself at him—or be pushed at him by ambitious parents. Two more years of not just good behavior but perfect behavior on her part to ensure no action of hers would discredit her family before the arrangement became legally binding.
Nadia knew the moment the Terrible Trio caught sight of Nate, because their inane banter suddenly stopped. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw all three of them stand up just a little straighter, hold their chins just a little higher. Jewel even took an extra deep breath so the tops of her breasts peeked out of her décolletage. Nadia resisted the urge to roll her eyes. If only Jewel knew how little her assets interested Nate.
“Be still my heart!” Nate declared when he was within earshot, sweeping all four of them with a lascivious look. “Such beauty will surely blind me.” His voice dripped with so much exaggeration Nadia almost laughed out loud.
“You are too kind, sir,” Jewel simpered, leaning forward so Nate could look down her dress if he wanted.
Always happy to play the role of the charming rake, Nate glanced downward and smiled, and though Nadia knew he was only playacting, she couldn’t help bristling. If Nadia or her family were to commit some gaffe and the Chairman were to choose another bride for Nate, Jewel would be one of the top candidates.
“Shouldn’t you be off talking to important dignitaries instead of flirting?” Nadia asked Nate.
Nate frowned, but at least he stopped looking down Jewel’s dress. “I believe that’s my father’s job. I’m the ne’er-do-well son, remember?”
How could she forget? While she painstakingly navigated the protocol and etiquette of Executive society, careful never to set a foot wrong lest disaster strike, Nate barreled through life as though he were invincible.
But in many ways, he was.
“Shall we dance?” he asked, holding out his elbow to Nadia.
Uh-oh, she thought. There was a reason no one else was dancing, and Nate knew that as well as she did. “I don’t think the bride and groom have danced yet,” she said cautiously, hoping that didn’t sound like a rebuke. She knew from experience how Nate reacted to even subtle rebukes. “But I’ll be sure to save you a dance later.”
His exaggerated pout told Nadia immediately that she’d made a tactical error. There was nothing like telling Nate he shouldn’t do something to make him stubbornly determined to do it. “This is supposed to be a party,” he said. “There’s supposed to be dancing.”
His elbow was still raised, as if he couldn’t conceive of the possibility that she might turn him down. Nadia was painfully aware of the Terrible Trio watching her, enjoying her dilemma.
Nate didn’t give a damn about protocol, but the rest of Executive society did. Protocol demanded that the bride and groom be allowed the first dance. Protocol also demanded that Nadia dance with her future husband when he asked her to. No matter which option she chose, people would talk, and her parents would later critique her decision. Nadia’s mother would invariably decide that Nadia had made the wrong choice, and her father would agree because that was the path of least resistance.
Nate dropped the grin, his eyes filling with earnestness. “Dance with me,” he said more softly. “Please.”
Internally, Nadia sighed. She was never any good at saying no to Nate, and he knew that. She really should put her foot down. The more she gave in, the more he would take. Plus, she had the uneasy suspicion there was something more to this invitation to dance than met the eye. Some deeper trouble Nate planned to get into, dragging her along for the ride.
Nate plucked the champagne cocktail from her hand and downed it in three swallows, handing the empty glass to a passing waiter. Nadia shook her head.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” she told him. “I’m coming down with a cold.”
Nate shrugged it off. “Will you dance with me, or won’t you?”
Despite all her natural caution, she found herself taking his elbow and allowing him to lead her to the dance floor. If people were going to talk no matter what she did, then she’d rather dance with Nate than endure the Trio.
Nadia was painfully aware of the eyes following their progress. She imagined every whisper of conversation was about her, about the breach of etiquette she was about to commit. An exaggeration, of course. Most of the partygoers were no doubt oblivious, locked in their choreographed pleasantries or Machiavellian scheming. Until Nate swept her into the dance, that is. The background mutter of conversation faded for a moment, then came back at renewed volume.
“I’m never going to hear the end of this,” she murmured, already second-guessing her decision. But then, if she’d refused to dance, he might have asked Jewel instead. Nadia knew he despised Jewel almost as much as she did, but that wouldn’t have made it any more fun to watch him dancing with her.
Nate smiled down at her. “People would be disappointed if I didn’t do something shocking and inappropriate at least once this evening. I have a reputation to uphold.”
“Your father would be over the moon with joy,” she countered. Nathaniel Sr., Chairman of Paxco, was humorless and unyielding, Nate’s exact opposite. She was glad that she would one day be Nate’s wife, but the prospect of having Nathaniel Sr. as a father-in-law was considerably less appealing.
“My father is off somewhere meeting with his cronies. You don’t think he’d waste his precious time enjoying himself at a party, do you?”
That was probably true. The heads of over a dozen of the Corporate States had gathered to celebrate this wedding, and they weren’t here because of their affection for the happy couple. The whole grand affair was merely a pretty façade masking a bunch of political and business meetings. The alliance with Synchrony had major implications for Paxco’s technology division, making it possible to incorporate Synchrony’s more advanced microprocessors into Paxco’s currently second-rate hardware. If Nate were acting like a proper heir, he’d be sitting in on those meetings, learning the ropes, instead of making a stir on the dance floor.
“So, were you really so impatient to dance, or did you have some other reason for making a spectacle of yourself?” Nadia asked. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a few other couples edging toward the dance floor indecisively.
“You looked like you could use a rescue,” Nate said, and Nadia felt a flash of gratitude. “Besides,” he continued, “I don’t need an ulterior motive to dance with the most beautiful girl in the room.”
Nadia snorted, an undignified sound she was glad no one but Nate could hear. “Yeah, because you’re such a ladies’ man.”
Nate laughed, and she smiled at him ruefully. He played at being a ladies’ man whenever he was in public, flirting shamelessly. Most of the unmarried Executive girls would swoon if he so much as looked at them, and Nadia was very much aware that not all of the jealousy aimed her way was because of her future husband’s status. What girl wouldn’t dream of having someone so handsome and charming in her bed? But any girl who shared his bed would spend a lot more time sleeping than she expected.
Nadia tried to ignore the sudden tightness in her chest. In just a few short years, she would be that any girl, lying untouched by Nate’s side. Or lying alone in bed while Nate cavorted with someone more to his taste.
“Cheer up,” Nate said into her ear, no doubt appearing to onlookers as if he were whispering sweet nothings. “Not only did I rescue you from death by gossip, I made sure we stole all the attention. You know how the Trio hate that.”
Nadia couldn’t help laughing. She glanced at the Trio and saw them huddled together like witches over a cauldron. They were all smiling, but the expression rang slightly false. Other couples were venturing out onto the dance floor, but the Trio would be too worried about their reputations to join in the fun. In one fell swoop, Nate had deprived them of their prey, their fun, and the attention of the state-approved photographers in discreet attendance. And he’d made her laugh when she felt miserable. All in all, it was probably worth the parental disapproval she was sure to face.
Nate and Nadia were no longer the only couple on the dance floor. The bride and groom had ventured out first, and then the other couples found their courage. The music came to an end, and Nate spun Nadia to a finish. The next song started up almost immediately, but it seemed Nate had lost interest in dancing once the shock value was used up.
“Let’s give our audience even more to talk about,” Nate said as he led her off the dance floor.
Nadia didn’t know what he meant until she realized he was leading her toward a doorway at the back of the ballroom. A pair of security guards flanked the doorway, and as if their presence wasn’t enough to clue everyone in that the rooms behind were off-limits, the lights in the hallway were off. Once again, Nadia had to suppress a groan. Everyone would notice the two of them sneaking off into the residential part of the mansion, and everyone would draw conclusions about what they were doing back there. Conclusions that would help Nate’s camouflage, to be sure, but that wouldn’t do her reputation a whole lot of good.
“I’d like another glass of punch,” Nadia said, though she’d barely taken two sips of her first and hadn’t enjoyed them.
Nate gave her his most wicked grin. “What’s the matter? Afraid to be alone with me?”
The problem with Nate was that once you gave him the inch, he went for the mile every time. Sometimes Nadia just wanted to shake him. She stopped moving toward the shadowed hallway, forcing Nate to stop with her.
“One scandal a night is all you get.” She said it with a smile, keeping her voice down so that no one watching them would know they were arguing. If that was what they were doing.
“You don’t want to mingle any more than I do,” Nate countered, “so let’s not.”
“What I want doesn’t really matter,” she said, hoping he didn’t hear the hint of bitterness in her voice.
“You said you were coming down with a cold. I’m sure polite society will forgive you for not spreading it around.”
Nadia wavered. The fact that she was sick wouldn’t protect her from scandal. But her nose was feeling stuffier, and the thought of spending the rest of the evening forcing smiles exhausted her.
Nate reached up and tucked one finger under his collar, pulling at the bow tie like it was choking him. “I’ve been on my best behavior for hours,” he said, sounding truly put upon. “I spent all morning schmoozing with my father and his cronies, and I even managed not to make more than one or two rude and inappropriate jokes. I dressed up, I showed up to the ceremony on time, and I’ve had only one drink. If I don’t let off some steam, I’ll probably end up doing something truly shocking in front of all these people. Far more shocking than leaving the room with my bride-to-be.”
She suppressed a shudder. When it came to making trouble, Nate could be remarkably creative. And because he was Chairman Heir, his bad behavior would reflect poorly not just on him and his family but on Paxco itself. Nadia might hate politics, but she cared enough about her state not to want Nate causing an international incident.
“This is blackmail,” she muttered, giving him a narrow-eyed glare that failed to make an impression.
His eyes twinkled. “Is it working?”
Her shoulders slumped in defeat. “Of course it’s working,” she grumped. Not for the first time, she wondered what her life would be like if she weren’t destined to be Nate’s bride, if the Chairman had chosen some other family to honor. And, as she had every time she’d questioned her fate before, she dismissed the thought. Nadia’s role in life as her father’s second daughter, and therefore not his heir, was to marry well and bring even greater wealth, prestige, and power to her family. Nate was far and away better than most of the men she was likely to be paired with.
Nate put his hand on her shoulder blade and guided her toward the hallway. She kept her chin up, not glancing right or left, trying to pretend she wasn’t doing anything improper and that she didn’t notice people watching her every move. Wandering off alone with Nate in such a public setting was an epic risk. Executive society operated on a set of social conventions that hearkened back to the nineteenth century, and though girls were able to inherit and hold power the same as boys, they were held to very different standards of behavior. If her engagement to Nate should fall through, she would be forever tainted in the eyes of Executive society. Damaged goods, sloppy seconds. All because of false assumptions about what she and Nate were doing when they were out of the public eye.
The guards pretended not to notice as Nate and Nadia slipped into the darkened hallway. Within a few steps, it was so dark Nadia couldn’t see a thing, but Nate guided her with complete confidence, turning two corners before reaching a hallway in which a few dim lights glowed.
Nadia’s eyes were drawn immediately to the figure who stood artfully posed in the halo of one of those lights, and her heart sank even lower as she realized exactly why Nate had dragged her away from the party.
Kurt Bishop was possibly the most inappropriate boyfriend Nate could have chosen—which was no doubt part of his appeal. Born and raised in the Basement, Bishop had been rescued from his life of depravity and squalor when Nate had accompanied his father on one of his routine recruitment campaigns there. Twice a year, a handful of young Basement-dwellers were given a chance for a better life, being brought into the ranks of the Employees, generally as menial laborers. Nate had taken an instant liking to Bishop and had hired him as his valet.
Even dressed in his formal livery, Bishop looked like a barbarian. His hair was a scraggly mane he refused to cut. A multitude of silver rings pierced one of his ears from top to bottom. Another pierced his eyebrow. And then there was the little silver ball in his tongue. Nadia couldn’t imagine letting someone jab a needle through her tongue. Every time she saw that piercing, she had to fight a cringe.
Bishop wasn’t wearing his livery tonight, Nadia noted, as an embarrassed blush rose to her cheeks. Tonight, he looked like the Basement-dweller he was, wearing skin-tight black leather pants and a mesh shirt that displayed his tattoos to all the world. He looked like a predator on the hunt, and Nate was his more-than-eager prey.
Nadia shook her head. “No,” she said firmly as Nate and Bishop met each other’s eyes, their gazes hot enough to scorch her.
Bishop raised his pierced eyebrow at her and smiled. “Nate didn’t tell you he was coming to meet me?”
“Of course not,” she snapped. “If he’d told me, I wouldn’t be here.”
“Nadia—” Nate started in a coaxing tone, but there were limits to how far she would allow herself to be pushed.
“I said no, and I mean it.” Earlier, she’d thought she wanted to shake him; now, she wanted to slap him.
“We’ll make it quick,” he promised. “All you have to do is stand guard for a few minutes, let us know if someone is coming.”
Bishop snickered at the double entendre, but Nadia was far from amused. She shook her head at Nate, amazed at his gall, though maybe she shouldn’t have been.
“You mean you’re so desperate to get laid you can’t even wait until after the reception?” she asked in a furious undertone.
“Where would the fun be in that?” Nate asked with a hard glint in his eye, and Nadia realized that there was more to this liaison than just a little mischievous fun. As much as he might enjoy provoking people, Nate never quite dared stage a full-scale rebellion against his father and the rules of Executive society. But sneaking off to screw his Basement-dweller boyfriend during a state event must have seemed a pretty satisfying substitute.
Nate had told her the truth about his sexual preferences when she was fourteen, when she was old enough that he could trust her to appreciate the importance of keeping it secret. Homosexuality was all right for the Employees and the Basement-dwellers, but it was an inexcusable flaw in an Executive. If anyone learned of Nate’s practices, he’d be subjected to an extensive regimen of “reprogramming.” Nadia had no idea what that “reprogramming” entailed, except that it was draconian and it would destroy the Nate she knew.
Ever since he’d told her the truth, Nadia had fought to resign herself to a future of looking the other way. But she would not put herself through that until she had to.
“You didn’t really come to rescue me from the Trio after all, did you?” she asked, tears burning her eyes, though she refused to let them fall. “It was just a lead up to this.”
Nate’s eyes widened in what looked like dismay. “Of course I did! I wasn’t planning to meet Kurt until later.”
Nadia bit her tongue to stop herself from telling Nate for the millionth time not to refer to Bishop by first name. He insisted on doing it when in private, but it upped the chances that he would let it slip in public someday.
“So it’s a coincidence that he’s waiting here for you now.”
“I’ve been here for almost an hour,” Bishop interrupted. “I had no idea when he’d be able to get away.”
Maybe it was true. Maybe Nate had had mostly good intentions when he’d asked her to dance. But that didn’t change the fact that what he wanted to do now wasn’t just reckless, it was dangerous. She should never have let him talk her into leaving the party.
“You don’t give a damn about anyone but yourself, do you?” she asked, and, despite her best intentions, angry tears spilled from her cheeks. Her cold was ramping up its attack, her sinuses clogged and achy, and crying wasn’t helping things.
“You don’t care that if someone caught us, I’d be ruined and Bishop…” She shook her head. “I don’t even know what would happen to him, except that he probably wouldn’t live through it.” As a former Basement-dweller, Bishop would have no family of any consequence to stand up for him, to make a stink if he were to disappear off the face of the earth. And Nate would be too busy being “reprogrammed” to help him.
“That’s why I’m asking you to keep watch,” Nate said, and the flush of color in his cheeks said he was getting angry, too. He was not used to being denied, especially not by her. “We won’t get caught as long as we have you for a lookout. You’ll stand at the corner of the hallway and make some kind of noise if you see someone coming.”
“Oh no, I will not!” She’d never been good at standing up to Nate, but she was going to do it this time. She had to. There was too much at stake. She glared at Bishop, who was leaning against the wall with his arms crossed over his chest, smirking like he was enjoying the show. “Why are you encouraging him?” she asked. “You could get killed over this.”
Bishop shrugged. “I guess I just have more faith in our Nate than you do,” he said simply.
“I think you’re confusing faith and stupidity.”
“If you want to go back to the party, be my guest,” Nate said. “Have fun chatting with the Trio.” He turned his back on her and pushed open a door that led to a small powder room. “We’ll carry on without you. If anyone asks why you’re coming back alone, you can just tell them we argued. It’s the truth, after all. And you won’t have been gone long enough for them to think we’ve done anything truly scandalous.”
His eyes flashed and he fixed her with his most challenging gaze. It was another attempt at blackmail, an attempt to make her worry about what greater trouble he would get into without her help. It had worked in the ballroom, but it wasn’t going to work here. Somehow, someday, she had to teach Nate that she wasn’t a doormat. Apparently, now was the time.
“Fine,” she said, though her nerves fluttered at the thought of what might happen. “Do whatever you want. It’s what you always do anyway. But you’re not going to drag me down with you.”
She whirled and hurried toward the darkened hallway that would lead her back to the ballroom. Nate called to her once, but she couldn’t make out the words over the roaring of her pulse in her ears.
* * *
Nadia awakened from a deep sleep when she felt the bed dip under someone’s weight. Her bedside lamp turned on, and she blinked in the brightness as she fought off the remnants of sleep to see her mother sitting beside her on the bed, looking pale and grave.
“What is it?” Nadia asked breathlessly, pushing herself up as her pulse suddenly raced. Someone caught Nate and Bishop, she thought in panic. He’s been sent to reprogramming because I refused to stand watch for him.
“It’s Nathaniel, dear,” her mother said, and Nadia’s chest tightened painfully. But the next words were not at all what she expected to hear.
“He’s been murdered.”
Copyright © 2013 by Jenna Black