Somewhere nearby, Benjy was waiting for me.
I could feel his stare as I made my rounds through the grand ballroom of Somerset Manor, greeting each new face with a smile that was becoming harder and harder to hold. They buzzed around me, vying for a few moments of my time, but we all knew they were only here because of my name and face. I was Lila Hart, the niece of the Prime Minister of the United States and one of the few VIIs in the entire country—which, in a roomful of VIs, made me more powerful than them all.
But I didn’t want power or fame. If I had my way, I would be tucked away in my suite with Benjy, stealing as many moments alone together as we could. Instead, I was stuck celebrating my birthday with a roomful of my so-called closest friends, led around by a fiancé I didn’t even particularly like, let alone love.
Except it wasn’t my birthday. These weren’t my friends. And Knox Creed was most definitely not my fiancé.
My name wasn’t Lila Hart. It was Kitty Doe, and on my real seventeenth birthday in September, I’d been kidnapped by the Prime Minister and surgically transformed into his spoiled, rebellious, and supposedly dead, niece against my will. He’d given me a choice: pretend to be Lila or wind up with a bullet in my brain. I wasn’t an idiot, and even though it had meant giving up everything I’d known and everyone I’d loved, I’d chosen to live—and to fight. Three months later, after discovering a lifetime’s worth of political conspiracies and secrets that should have stayed buried, here I was, with Knox clutching my arm as he led me through a crowd of people who would kill me if they figured out who I really was.
I glared up at him and tried to subtly twist my arm from his grip, but he hung on. I didn’t care that he was handsome and tall, with dark hair and even darker eyes, and that most girls would have killed to be in my shoes. They didn’t have to deal with his endless stream of instructions on how to impersonate a girl I hated, nor did they have to pretend to love him in front of the entire country when we spent most days in a constant tug of war.
Besides, I was extremely happy with the boyfriend I already had, thank you very much—a boyfriend who, with his infinite patience, had been waiting over an hour for me to slip away from these people. If I didn’t find a way soon, the night wasn’t going to end pleasantly for any of us.
“We had a deal,” I whispered, leaning into Knox so only he could hear me. “I play nice for a couple hours and leave at nine. It’s now almost eleven.”
“Sometimes plans change,” he said, his fingers tightening around my elbow. Even though he was speaking to me, his eyes scanned the ballroom. “Relax and try to enjoy yourself.”
The only times I’d enjoyed myself in the past few months had been those stolen moments with Benjy. “Lila would have never stayed this long. Every minute I hang around, the more suspicious it looks.”
“I know,” he said quietly, bending down to brush his lips against my ear. The heat of his breath reminded me just how cold it was in the ballroom, and I shivered in my flimsy silk dress. “But sometimes even Lila had to do things she didn’t like. Incoming.”
I turned around in time to see a portly man amble up to us. Minister Bradley, one of the twelve Ministers of the Union who worked under the Prime Minister. I didn’t know many of them on sight, but Minister Bradley’s handlebar mustache was burned into my brain, along with the way my skin crawled whenever he was nearby.
“Lila, my dear, you look ravishing.” He leaned in to bump his dry lips against my cheek, and it took every ounce of willpower I possessed to keep myself from shuddering. “After all you’ve been through, I expected something less...” He made a vague gesture, his eyes locking on my chest.
I didn’t bother to smile this time. “Minister Bradley. I’m surprised to see you here. I thought your wife was sick.”
He chuckled, and his gaze never wavered. “Yes, yes, well, I would never miss a chance to see your beautiful face.”
“In that case, you might want to look up here instead,” I said, and Minister Bradley turned scarlet.
“I’m sorry, Minister,” said Knox quickly, and he hooked his elbow with mine. “Lila’s had a bit too much to drink tonight. If you wouldn’t mind, darling, I need a quick word with you.”
He led me away, and I clutched my glass of champagne. We both knew I hadn’t taken a single sip. I couldn’t afford to drink, not when I needed every wit I had to survive the night.
Weaving through the Ministers and their families, along with several of the most prominent VIs in Washington D.C., Knox led me to a table laden with food and cloth napkins folded into the shape of peacocks. The people lingering nearby began to move in, but Knox shot them a look of pure poison, and they scattered.
“You know how important tonight is,” he said quietly, once we were alone. He handed me a small plate from the end of the table. “Do you really think insulting Minister Bradley to his face is going to make this any easier on you?”
“He was staring down my dress,” I said. “Why do you expect me to smile and let him when Lila would’ve—”
“Right now I don’t care what Lila would have done,” he said. “I expect you not to cause a scene with one of the most powerful Ministers of the Union and make us another enemy we don’t need.”
“Everyone in this place is an enemy.” I turned away and began to pile my plate with bite-size desserts.