“You must be desperate if you think I offer you any more safety than the strangers you’re about to meet. I don’t.”

She recoiled, stung by my words, by my actions. Good. She needed to hate me. It would make it all easier.

I put the car back into gear and pulled from the shoulder. I was desperate to get out of this enclosed space, away from her eyes, her scent, her lips, her breath.

As I wished for an escape, the wide gates of the Oakman estate loomed ahead of us. Several cars passed through after their occupants showed the guards the distinctive engraved invitation—this year’s was solid gold. I hefted the plate from my inner coat pocket and flashed it before I was waved through to the tree-lined lane. The Oakman home rose from the landscape, a French chateau built in the style of Versailles. Stella took a deep, steadying breath beside me. Nervousness? Excitement? Dread? Any one of those, or all at once, maybe.

I mimicked her quietly, trying to calm my nerves right along with hers. So much was riding on this. On her. She would either save the Vinemonts or break us. Tonight was her first step toward either destiny.

Chapter Eleven

Stella

The house in the oak grove was ominous despite the fact that the outside was lit up as bright as day. Ballgoers climbed the wide stone stairs to the open and bright front entrance. I shivered.

I’d almost had him only moments before, but the iota of control I wielded over Vinemont wasn’t enough. My lips, my words, none of it was enough to make him change his course. I entertained the ridiculous fantasy that if I could get him to care about me, then he wouldn’t hurt me. I knew he wouldn’t let me go, not until the year was up. But maybe I could convince him to leave me alone, to let me paint, to let me do anything besides standing naked for his amusement or enduring any of his cruel intentions.

But then he’d pulled away, becoming his usual cold self. At the last moment, I’d lost him.

Even though I hadn’t been able to shake him, whatever lay within the chateau put Vinemont on edge. I didn’t think anything could make him nervous. He tried to hide it beneath his usual snobby veneer, but I saw it clearly. He could hide plenty from me, but not that. Even he didn’t look forward to the dark deeds that awaited in this place.

He pulled up to a valet. For the first time, I noticed all of the people walking past the car were wearing masks. I turned back to Vinemont to find he’d already donned a simple black mask covered with the vine motif, his blue eyes showing through the material like patches of dark sky. His jaw was tight, the clean shaven lines perfection beneath his disguise. He pulled a far more extravagant mask from behind my seat, made with the same black peacock feathers on my dress.

“Put it on.”

I slipped the ribbon around my head and tied them in the back. Alex would have had a fit if he had seen me so much as touch my hair. I felt a pang in my breast at the thought of never seeing my short-lived friends again. After Mom had died, I didn’t do much besides keep my father company, paint, and read. I had no friends to speak of, no one to notice I was gone.

Now that I didn’t belong to myself anymore, I realized what a sheltered, useless existence I’d truly had. I was utterly unprepared for the world, for Vinemont, for the shadows that threatened to smother the very life from my body. I could feel it, the darkness, swirling near me, taking the air from my lungs like a greedy parasite.

The valet had been holding his hand out for an awkward moment before I took it and allowed him to help me from the car. He wore a silver mask with what looked like an oak branch pattern in stark black lines.

“Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” the valet said. “Welcome to the Oakman chateau.”

“Not a scratch.” Vinemont threw the keys. The valet caught them easily.

Vinemont came around and offered his arm to me. I would have refused had it not been for the too-high heels strapped to my feet. As it was, I would need help climbing the wide stairs unless I wanted to break my neck.

I pushed my cloak out of the way and took his arm. Warmth radiated from him, seeping through his tuxedo and into my bare arm. With the shoes, I was tall enough to get a good look at his face, despite the mask hiding him from me. His jaw was tight, stress written in the tension.

We began our climb as others crowded around us. I tried to listen to the snippets of conversation.

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