“Gavin?” Bob’s voice, closer now.

“Right here.” We turned the corner to find Bob, Lucius, and Vinemont.

My expression must have tipped Vinemont off that something happened because he was towering over me in an instant. “What?”

“What do you mean?” I dropped my gaze to the floor. I didn’t need his help and I certainly didn’t want it.

He leaned back to get a view down the hall we’d come from. Red barreled around the corner, mirth still lighting his eyes.

Vinemont advanced on him until they were standing chest to chest. “Red, stay the fuck away from her. I’m not going to tell you again.”

“You don’t have to. I’m done. Don’t worry, I’m a patient man. I’ll get my turn at Christmas.” He winked at me, though he still kept a protective hand over his crotch.

I hoped his dick was bruised and swollen. I only regretted that I hadn’t tried to rip it off.

Lucius stepped up next to his brother. “Stella belongs to me now, Red. If you touch her, speak to her, do anything to her without asking me first, I will skull fuck your little sister.” Lucius smirked. “She eighteen yet? Not that it matters.”

“Don’t you fucking talk about my sister!” Red screamed. His anger was raw, unexpected, the sound catching in his throat.

Somehow, this anger was far more real than any other emotion I’d seen from him. It was strange to think he cared for someone other than himself. But there was no mistaking it. Lucius’ jab had hit home. Why?

Vinemont put a hand on Lucius’ arm. “Come on. Let’s get the meet and greet done and then we can bow out.” Vinemont pulled Lucius back, reining in his younger brother.

Red shook his head as if to clear it, the auburn strands sticking to his sweaty forehead.

“Gavin, come.” Bob tottered away, his round body swaying like humpty dumpty as he headed toward the staircase to the third floor.

Gavin gave me a small smile and turned to follow.

“We’re going, too.” Vinemont placed his hand on my lower back, his fingertips hot against my bare skin, and led me forward.

Lucius was close behind and Red followed. We climbed the stairs. The music faded as we rose, until it was only a slight rhythmic bump.

We turned right at the landing and entered a solarium. The glass ceiling above opened to the night sky. Exotic plants that were painstakingly curated to give the appearance of wildness filled the room.

Branching ropes of wisteria climbed central pillars and fanned out across the panes, creating a patchwork of bark and greenery. I imagined how it must look in the spring, heavy lavender blooms hanging beneath the blue heavens. I closed my eyes, etching the image into my mind so I could paint it later. It would have been beautiful, but tonight the sky was nothing but a dark blur through the glass, no stars, no moon. The air stagnated with conversation and stale cigar smoke. Whatever beauty this room might hold was covered with a fine layer of grime from its occupants.

About two dozen more guests settled here, lounging, talking, drinking. Several older ladies in one group turned toward us, whispering and eyeing me with haughty disdain. Though they were long past their prime, their faces were frozen in an impression of youth—lips too plump, brows too unlined, smiles too improbably white. Like some of the plants in the room, they were sickly sweet and entirely predatory. I shivered and edged closer to Vinemont.

He wrapped his arm around my waist and something inside me calmed. The tempest of emotions Red, and now this room, had whipped up mellowed under Vinemont’s touch, and even though I knew I wasn’t, I felt safe.

I glanced up and caught his eye, the dark sapphire blue stopping my breath for a second. The memory of him in the cabin that day during the storm, the way he’d worshipped my flesh with his, flitted through my mind. A distant echo of those same feelings scattered through my heart and multiplied until the only thing inside me was his name, a whispered prayer. Sin.

He leaned toward me until his lips were at my ear. “I should have told you before. But I have never seen anything more beautiful.”

My heart stopped, and then a warmth spread from it to the rest of me. His words were unexpected, and my steps faltered as I tried to keep his pace.

He straightened and looked ahead so that all I could see was his strong profile against the backdrop of the shadowy sky. His grip never failed, I gained my feet again, and we glided through the room.

Unlike the dance floor below, the atmosphere was almost cloyingly serene, and a string quartet played in a corner. The older guests here were sedate, perhaps having swum long enough in an ocean of privilege and depravity that they were now content to sit on the shore and watch the rest of the swimmers struggle and drown.

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