His sexy green eyes widened and then narrowed as they raked over her, seemingly undressing her. Never had she felt more exposed while wearing so many layers of clothing. The burgundy dress had belonged to the third Poppy Holland, preserved in a trunk rarely opened, while her lingerie had been given to her in trade by a customer. A woman that designed retro corsets, garters and stockings to sell on the internet. Steampunk fashion, she had called it.
Out of habit, her hand moved to her throat.
A wicked smile covered Sasha’s face as he copied her and pulled out the pendant. He held it to his lips and blood rushed to her cheeks. How dare he rub it in her face? Taking a step forward, she bumped into Gabriel.
“Sorry,” she muttered, wishing she had the courage to run over to Sasha and rip the thing off of his neck. However, causing a scene was the worst thing she could do. It was better to remain under the radar for the next couple of hours, until she could escape this hell and go pack.
Sasha placed a black mask over the top half of his face, disappearing with her next blink. Astonishment replaced indignation as she craned her head to get another glimpse of him.
“Are you hungry?” Gabriel asked.
“I should eat if I’m drinking.” She’d been too darn nervous to manage more than crackers and cheese before she’d gotten dressed. Luckily, Skye had stuck around to lace her into the gown.
Rose sipped at the champagne, bubbles tickling her nose as she swayed to the song the band was playing in the background.
“Hullo, love,” Sasha whispered in her ear.
She quickly turned, ready to demand her necklace back, but the only person she found standing beside her was a man wearing a cardboard nightstand with the number one painted on it.
He wriggled his silver eyebrows at her and blew a kiss.
“Dammit,” she breathed.
Sasha appeared again, this time by the refreshment table. He struck up a conversation with a bull and a peacock.
Forget about making a scene, she wanted her necklace. “You will give it back,” Rose muttered and almost tripped over her dress as she started in Sasha’s direction.
A hand shot out, grabbing her by the elbow. “What’s your hurry, sugar?”
Harrison’s gray eyes narrowed as she jerked out of his grasp. “Should you be seen talking with me?” She motioned to Harrison’s wife.
Lorelei Collins held court in the middle of the ballroom, dressed as Elizabeth the First. She preened as men half her age flirted with her.
“The Queen is currently occupied with her admirers. I suspect she’ll be choosing one tonight.” Harrison’s mouth flattened. “Or two.”
Rose wanted to point out that he’d cheated on his wife with Azalea, but knew it wouldn’t do any good. “Don’t worry, I’m leaving as soon as possible.”
Harrison shook his head. “Sorry, sugar, change of plans.”
“I’ll make a scene,” she threatened, clenching her fist.
“No you won’t.” Her father tapped her nose and she flinched. “You’d rather cut off your hand than have everyone stare at you.”
He was right and she was miserable with the knowledge. “How long do I have to stay?”
Lifting his drink, he studied her over the rim. “Until the party’s over.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Your loan comes due. All of it.”
There were so many words that sprang to mind, so many retorts, but Carolina Dreams was all she had left. And she was determined to keep it open and make it prosperous. The contract with Barbara’s Bugs would have paid off her back taxes, but now she’d be able to pay back his loan with puppet strings.
“Don’t keep this beautiful lady all to yourself, Harrison.” Jason cast a wolfish smile as he came to stand beside them, his pack of friends flanking his shoulders.
Her insides crashed together and her knees threatened to give out, but she kept a calm façade behind her mask, flickering her eyes over Jason, then away. Most of the time, she found a way to avoid him and the guys he hung out with.
“My date’s waiting for me,” she said, but Harrison gave a slight shake of his head. Trapped, Rose hid her clenched fists in the folds of her skirt.
Jason winked at her. “They’re playing our song, Rose.”
Lifting her chin, she said, “We don’t have one.”
“But we could.”
“You two kids have fun.” Harrison practically threw her at Jason.
Not in this lifetime, she wanted to shout. Reluctantly, she let Jason take her by the arm, moving her to the dance floor. Her skin crawled where he touched her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Gabriel head in their direction, concern plainly written on his face.
Standing on her toes, she mouthed, “I’m fine.”
Gabriel crossed his arms and waited at the edge of the dance floor.
“Smile.” Jason’s hand moved to the curve of her hip and she wanted to vomit.
“I’ll rip off your mask if you don’t,” he said pleasantly.
“And risk your sterling reputation? We both know that’s not going to happen.” She focused on a point over his shoulder, staring at the image of a redheaded woman in amethyst slowly decaying until it blurred.
“Maybe I like taking risks.”
She jerked her gaze back to his, his sky blue eyes bright. Deceiving. Those—along with his smile—made people trust him, made them think he was sincere. Heck, it had made her believe Jason had been different from the rest. “Not interested.”
“Do you remember our last night together?”
When he collected money on a bet, after breaking up with her in a crowded restaurant? She scowled at him behind her mask.
He chuckled, “Not then. The night before, when I took you to The Pointe.”
She remained silent. Dancing with him was one thing, but engaging in painful conversation was quite another.
He bent his dark head, his breath hot against her ear. “I bent you over the hood of my car, and—”
Rose focused on the portrait again, humming in her mind to drown out his words. It was supposed to have been a romantic evening with music, dancing under the moonlight and a picnic dinner by the sound. Instead all he’d brought was a box of wine, subs from one of those chain restaurants, and played a random mix of rap, metal and bluegrass.
Afterwards it had been a repeat of every date: she and Jason having sex. Not making love. Not connecting. And she’d been too lonely, too inexperienced with men—with any man at all—to have realized it until it was too late.