Despite the crackling flames, the room was colder, darker. My familiar comfort drained away. Someone else was sitting in the matching chair facing my father, though I couldn’t see who it was.

My pace slowed as I saw my father’s stricken look. His wrinkled, yet still handsome face was pale, even in the flickering firelight. The first coils of dread snaked around my heart, constricting it slowly.

“Dad?”

Then I caught the scent of him. Whenever I passed him in the courthouse or when he came too close to where my father and I sat, I’d gotten a taste of this same scent. Woodsy and masculine with a hint of some sort of sophisticated tinge. My knees threatened to buckle but I kept going until I stood behind my father’s chair and faced my enemy.

Vinemont’s cold gaze appraised every inch of my body. “Stella.”

I’d never heard him say my name. He spoke it with his signature arrogance, as if just uttering the word was somehow beneath him.

I scowled. “What is this? What are you doing here?”

“I was just discussing a business arrangement with your father. He doesn’t seem inclined to accept my terms, so I thought I would run them past you. See if I got a different result.”

“Get out,” I hissed.

He smirked, though there was no joy in his eyes, just an inscrutable coldness that radiated out and made my skin tingle.

“I think you should leave.” Dad’s voice broke on the last word.

“Do you, now?” Vinemont never took his eyes from me. “Before I’ve had the chance to give Stella the particulars?”

I put my shaking hands on the back of my father’s chair. “What are you talking about?”

“Nothing. Mr. Vinemont should be leaving.” My father’s voice grew a bit stronger.

“Y-you can’t be here talking to my father without his attorney.” I forced the tremor to leave my voice. “I know the law, Vinemont.”

Vinemont shrugged, his impeccable dark gray suit rising and falling with the movement. “If you aren’t interested in keeping your father out of prison, then I’ll go.”

He didn’t move, simply watched me with the same dark intensity. Goosebumps rose along the back of my neck and shoulders.

What is this?

“What do you mean?” I asked. “How?”

“As I was just explaining to your father, I have a certain deal to offer. If you accept it, then he’ll stay out of prison. If not, then he’ll be going away for the maximum sentence—fifteen years.”

“A plea deal? But you’ve refused this whole time to make any deal at all.” My voice rose, anger influencing every word. “You were in the papers, telling anyone and everyone that you would do nothing short of seeing my father rotting in prison.”

“Plea deal? I never said anything about a plea deal. I didn’t realize you were this foolish.” He steepled his fingers and canted his head to the side. He looked like Satan, the firelight dancing along his strong features. “No, Stella. I already have a conviction, nothing left but sentencing for him. And I have no doubt he’ll get the max. I’ve made sure of it.”

He spoke as if I was a small, slow child in need of extra after-school help.

“Then what? What are you offering?” My hands fisted, my fingernails digging into my palms. “And what do you want in return?”

“Ding ding ding, she finally catches on.” His smirk grew into a wicked grin that chilled every chamber of my heart. His teeth were even and white. If there had been actual warmth in the smile, he would have been beautiful. Instead, he was the monster from my nightmares.

“The deal is simple. Even simple enough for you to understand, Stella.” He reached into his inner suit coat pocket and drew out a folded sheaf of papers with some sort of wax seal. “All you have to do is sign this and your father will never see the inside of a prison cell.”

“No. I’ve heard enough. Get out of my house.” My father stood and came around the chair to stand by my side.

Vinemont finally tore his gaze from me and glowered at my father. “Are you certain, Mr. Rousseau? You do realize that a Louisiana prison is hell on earth as it is, but I have ways to make it even more unbearable. Cell mates and such? It would be a shame for you to get paired with a violent—or amorous—sort, especially at your age. You wouldn’t last long. Maybe a month or two until you broke. And after you’re broken, well, let’s just say the prison system isn’t exactly known for spending medical dollars on old, decrepit thieves.”

“Get out!” My father’s voice rang out stronger than I’d ever heard it, even as he trembled next to me.

Vinemont’s smile never faltered. “Fine. See you in court.”

He tucked the papers back into his coat, rose, and strode from the room. Confidence permeated his movements as he stalked out like some big, dangerous animal. The sureness of his words, the conviction of his gait left me feeling at once chilled yet burning to know why he’d come.

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