SIN SQUEEZED MY HAND as we pulled through the gate onto the Fort LaRoux property. Cars formed a line ahead of us as Luke rolled down his window to converse with the guard. All I could think about was the rapid beat of my heart. I kept taking deep breaths, but couldn’t seem to stop everything from moving too fast.
“Calm, Stella. Calm.” Sin ran the back of his hand down my cheek. “We can do this.” The strain in his voice told me he felt the same rush of adrenaline and fear. He was just better at hiding it.
Teddy and Lucius remained at home, no last minute summons disturbing them. All the same, a sense of foreboding took hold in me. Rebecca’s sing-song about spring being the time for family played in my mind, sending a shiver through me.
Sin kissed the back of my hand, his face drawn and starkly handsome. “The trial won’t last more than a day. It can’t. Cal hasn’t set up any local accommodations.”
“One day. I can do this. One day for Teddy.” I took another deep breath and tried to school my features. Even if I was coming apart on the inside, I wouldn’t let the circling vultures sense my weakness.
The narrow road to the fort curved through stands of pulpwood on either side, the monotonous pines growing straight and tall for row after row. The rain hadn’t let up; a light mist still floated on the air, coating everything with clammy wetness and hiding the early afternoon sun.
We cruised through the pines until the fort rose from the ground ahead of us. I’d studied it for hours, analyzing photos of the layout, trying to determine what Cal had cooked up for the trial. It was circular, built at a time when muskets and gunpowder were the only thing to stop invaders.
The rounded walls were made of large, square stones, but over time they’d become covered with green moss, the surface alive. The field around the structure was all high grass except for some older oaks, gray moss hanging wet and thick from the low branches.
An expansive red tent, bigger than most houses, was set up against the side of the fort. Luke pulled up, and a valet opened my door. Sin squeezed my fingers until they almost hurt before letting me go. I stepped out, my boots solid on the pavement.
I wore dark canvas pants and a long-sleeve sports v-neck, breathable and warm. Despite the pragmatism of my outfit, Renee had done my makeup and curled my hair into flowing ringlets for Cal’s benefits. I had elastics in my pocket for when the competition began.
Sin strolled around the car, his mask firmly on as he gave me a derisive glare. “Let’s go.”
He took my upper arm and pulled me along with him into the tent. Chandeliers hung overhead, and a band played in one corner. Long tables overflowing with food ran down each side, and a bar was set up at the very back beside the fort entrance. The ragged wooden doors were wide open, people steadily making their way into the fort once they’d had their fill in the tent. Overhead lights glowed on the spiral stairs that disappeared upwards beyond my view.
The receiving line was long, Cal shaking hands with everyone who set foot inside. Dread and anger danced inside me as some of the decked out party-goers gawked at me and whispered amongst themselves. Sin shook a few hands and chitchatted as we moved steadily forward.
“I heard Lucius gave it to her good at Christmas.” A wizened old man patted Sin on the elbow. “I bet you were sad you missed it.”
Sin smiled. “Don’t worry, Governor Treadway. I still manage to have plenty of fun with her. She’s got a little fight left. Just enough to make it interesting.”
Governer Treadway? I didn’t recognize him by sight, but I knew him through my history lessons in school. He was one of the staunchest anti-integration governors in the South during the Civil Rights era and was still reviled for that legacy.
The old man eyed me up and down. “Interesting, huh? I can sure see that. I remember back in my day, they strung the bitches up and let us—”
“Barton.” Sin clapped the next well-wisher on the back as the former governor gave me one last look before speaking to a man in line behind us.
“You’re looking good this year,” Barton said. “I may have a side bet on you. But don’t tell Cal. He’ll want a cut of the action.” He winked at me.
I had the urge to knee him. Instead, I stared placidly ahead as we finally reached Cal.
“Welcome.” Cal greeted Sin with a handshake. He pulled me into a hug. “And, my goodness, Stella. Glad to see you looking so fetching.” Putting me at arm’s length, he ran his gaze down my body before grabbing a tendril of my hair and smelling it. “For me?”