“Let’s hope we don’t have to. Do you think anyone will come for us?” We’d discussed it before, but tonight we had just tried to get through the coronation alive. This was a whole new reality.

“I don’t think anyone’s left to retaliate. If they do, we’ll be ready.” His tone was full of malicious promise. He kissed my hand again, his gentle lips at odds with his dark words.

“The police?”

“Anyone who’s left will kill any investigation into the Acquisition. The governor won’t want anyone digging too deeply into this tragedy. Besides, every sheriff from the surrounding parishes was in the crowd.”

I relaxed back into my seat, staring ahead as we raced off into the night. Into our future, while the world of the Acquisition turned to ash behind us.

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

STELLA

“NO, TO THE LEFT.” I put my hands on my hips. “No, Teddy, your other left. And they’re really going to let you operate on people?”

He laughed and adjusted the star atop the Christmas tree more to my liking. “How about that?”

“It looks straight to me.”

“The top is cocked to the left.” Sin wrapped his arms around me from behind.

“No it isn’t.” I ran my hands over his arms.

“Yes, it is. Angle it to the right more, Ted.”

Teddy looked at me for permission.

“Fine, to the right. See how that looks.”

He tweaked it and stood back on the ladder. “I’ve only changed it five times so far.”

“See, now it’s perfect. Like you.” Sin kissed my neck, and I sighed.

Teddy climbed down and pulled the ladder away. Sin reached over and hit the lights. The tree glowed white, the lights glittering amid the silver and gold ornaments.

“Beautiful. Also like you.” He nibbled at my ear, sending goose bumps running down my arms.

Teddy sank into an arm chair and threaded his fingers behind his head. “This is pretty much my best work yet.”

Laura walked into the library and clapped. “Oh my god, it’s perfect!”

I smiled. “It was all Teddy.”

“Liar,” Sin whispered in my ear.

I melted into him, leaning back as he held me. He was everything; I couldn’t even fall asleep without him now. He kept the nightmares at bay—the faces, screams, and flames. He’d given up his position in town and focused on the sugar business. Where he went, I followed, though I drew the line at returning to Cuba.

After the coronation night, the news ran several stories about the “tragedy in the bayou,” the fast-moving fire that had trapped many fine and upstanding members of Southern society. At first, it seemed like coverage would never end, but after a couple days, the world just seemed to move on.

The house was on high alert the first month, hiring Quinlan’s men to keep watch at the front and back gates. But after a while, it appeared the entire power structure had collapsed, leaving no one to retaliate.

Fall turned to winter, and as Christmas approached, I wanted to change our history, mold the season into a happy time.

Laura walked to Teddy, who pulled her into his lap.

She protested. “Stop. Not in front of them.”

Teddy scoffed. “Stella and Sin don’t care. They’re practically doing it standing up over there.”

She laughed as he ran his hands around her waist and pulled her down to his mouth.

“Jesus, that tree is overdone.” Lucius walked in and plopped down on the sofa, drink in hand as always. “Did you raid the north pole or something?”

I arched an eyebrow. “Shut up. It’s gorgeous.”

“If you say so.” Lucius saluted me with his drink and downed half of it in one go. “Farns would have a heart attack if he saw it, for the record.” Lucius kicked his feet up on the coffee table.

“Well, then it’s a good thing we sent him on a vacation to a sunnier clime.” I refused to let Lucius bring down my Christmas spirit.

Teddy came up for air. “Lucius, don’t be such a dick. It’s Christmas.”

I walked to Lucius and pulled his glass away. “I think what we need is food instead of alcohol. Maybe it will improve your mood.”

He glanced to Sin and then stared at my chest. “I’d love to tell you what would improve my mood, but Sin probably wouldn’t like it.”

“Don’t talk to her like—”

“Sin, it’s fine. He needs to eat. The liquid diet makes him grouchy. I’ll go get some snacks from the kitchen.”

“There’s a roast on the stove.” Laura started to get up.

“No. Stay. I’ll make a plate and bring it. Lucius and Sin, play nice while I’m gone. Laura and Teddy—” I smiled. “—carry on.”

I hummed “Last Christmas” as I entered the kitchen. Renee stood in the pantry, her back to me.

“Oh, hey, I was wondering where you were. We just decorated the tree. I’m going to take some—”

She made a strangled noise and fell forward.

“Renee!” I rushed to her and turned her over. A knife protruded from her chest. I drew air into my lungs to scream, but Dylan lunged from the darkness of the pantry and clapped a hand over my mouth.

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