Before long, we spied the glint of a car ahead of us, and we joined what seemed to be a long procession winding along the narrow drive. Eventually, the woods opened into a wide clearing, and a massive log structure rose from the side of a hill. It was enormous, the size of a small hotel, out in the middle of nowhere. The roof had several apexes, each one an A-frame with a large sheet of glass enclosing the front of the house. The oak logs were rustic, but the glass was modern, glinting in the early afternoon sun.

The cars moved in an orderly row, each pausing at a valet station before parking in a field off to the right. Luke pulled to the front of the line, and the valet greeted us and opened our doors. I stepped out into the bitter air and stuffed my hands in my pockets. I didn’t want anyone to touch me.

Lucius walked around to me after telling Luke to bring up the bags.

We climbed the stairs behind an elderly couple who had a hard time managing it. Neither Lucius nor I offered to assist. If they fell down and broke their necks, it was all the better for me as far as I was concerned.

We made it to the upper deck where all the windows opened out onto the landscape. I looked back and realized the house was situated on the highest ridge of the area, giving an expansive vista of the forest beyond.

“Come in, come in.” Cal’s voice had me slowing my pace. I could stand the frigid air more than I could stand his presence.

“Sheriff Wood! Welcome. Glad you could make it.” Cal rattled off names with his usual exuberance as the greeting line moved along.

The elderly couple finally made it into the house through a pair of rustic wood and metal front doors. Lucius put a hand on my lower back and guided me forward. Cal, wearing a ridiculous Christmas sweater, gripped my upper arms and air kissed me on each cheek.

“So nice to see you again, Stella. Lucius, welcome.”

Thankfully, Cal went on greeting the people behind us so we slipped in without any more fanfare. The house was a work of art—beams in a lattice work across the high ceiling, and glass giving a full 180-degree view of the ridges and valleys in the distance.

People were everywhere, talking, drinking, and mingling. The sound system played jaunty Christmas tunes as I caught pieces of conversations about the “fun of the last Acquisition Christmas trial” and “what does Cal have up his sleeve for this year?” My stomach churned as they crowed about what a good time they intended to have over the weekend.

I spotted Gavin ahead, his tall frame giving him a boost above most of the surrounding guests. Surging forward, I pushed through to him.

“Stella.” He hugged me.

“Hi.”

“I can’t exactly say I’m glad you made it.” He pulled me away and shook his head, the dark circles under his eyes telling me he hadn’t slept, either. “But, if we have to be here, at least we’re together.”

“You aren’t together.” Lucius caught up to me. “Bob, get your Acquisition on a fucking leash, would you?”

Bob began stuttering, his face turning red almost instantly. “Gavin. Stop talking to her. She’s the enemy.”

Gavin bent down by my ear and quickly whispered. “I got your back.”

He straightened and moved away toward Bob before I could reciprocate. I didn’t know if it would be true, me saying I had his back, but I would do my best.

“What did he say?” Lucius maneuvered us toward another set of stairs with an attendant at the top.

“Nothing.”

“Lucius?” A blonde woman in skin-tight jeans and a thin white sweater rested her hand on Lucius’ arm.

“Oh, hey…”

It was obvious he couldn’t remember her name, but that didn’t stop her. “I’d heard you’d somehow jumped into the running. It’s been a while. What, last year sometime?” Her voice dropped to as much of a husky whisper as possible to still be heard over the multitude of other people chatting.

Lucius nodded. “Yeah, I think that’s right. I had a great time.”

I stared at him as the lies rolled off his tongue. He clearly had no clue who she was or when he’d fucked her.

She moved her hands to his shoulders and tiptoed to whisper in his ear, rubbing her breasts all over his chest while she did it. He only smiled when she dropped back down and stared up into his eyes.

“Sounds good. Soon then.”

“Soon.” She winked and turned back to her conversation as Lucius pushed me even faster through the throng. We finally made it to the stairs and climbed until we came to another attendant. He was dressed all in black which did nothing to hide his portly girth. He had an air of self-importance that rankled.

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