“Do you want another drink?” said Knox, even though I still held my full champagne flute. I shook my head.
“But if you can get me one of those puff pastry things—”
A shot rang out, and in an instant, my mind went blank. All I could see was crimson against white, a stark contrast that wouldn’t go away no matter how much I tried to block it out.
The sight of Augusta’s body going limp, and blood pooling around her on the carpet.
The cold metal of a gun in my hands as I squeezed the trigger again and again, knowing that if I didn’t, Augusta would kill Benjy.
Knox’s voice filtered through the haze toward me. I cracked open my eyes. Even though he hovered only a few inches away from me, he seemed far off, and his face was blurry. I sensed others lurking nearby, but the dull roar in my ears made it impossible for me to hear what they were saying.
“They’re just fireworks,” said Knox, his breath warm against my cheek as his hands gripped my shoulders. Cold seeped through my dress from the marble underneath me, and it took me a moment to realize I was on the floor. “See? Look over there.”
I twisted around as another bang went off. Reflexively I ducked again, but Knox’s hands remained steady. Bright bursts of color filled the grand ballroom, and I had to blink several times before my vision cleared enough for me to make out each one through the floor-to-ceiling windows.
Fireworks. Just fireworks. Not gunshots. No one was in any danger, except for Knox if he didn’t get his hands off me.
“I’m fine,” I mumbled, shoving him away. He took a step back, and it was then that I noticed the group of people who had formed a tight circle around us. Each of them stared openly, ignoring the display and instead paying attention to me. Terrific. Not only had I broken down, but I’d done so in front of the country’s highest and mightiest. “I—” I began, wracking my muddled mind for an excuse, but a familiar voice rang through the crowd, cutting me off.
Benjy burst out from between Minister Bradley and his slack-jawed daughter, and he slid across the floor, kneeling beside me. As soon as I felt his warmth, the knot in my chest began to loosen.
“Are you all right? You were screaming.” His blue eyes were wide and anxious, and his short red hair was disheveled. He reached out to touch my face the same way Knox had, but his hand stopped an inch away. Too many people were staring at us, and no matter how concerned he was, he couldn’t give me away. He couldn’t give us away.
“I’m fine, I promise,” I said again. My cheeks burned, and I pushed myself to my feet, ignoring the way my knees shook. Birthday party or not, I had to get out of here. “I just—I just forgot to eat, that’s all.”
“Back up,” said Knox to the crowd, and he began to corral them away. “Give her some air. Benjy, take her to my suite. I’ll be there in a moment.”
Benjy tucked his arm around me, and I shot Knox a grateful look. Aware of everyone staring at us, I allowed Benjy to lead me to the exit as the bang of fireworks echoed from the garden. Each one sent a shiver down my spine.
This wasn’t normal. I’d never reacted this way before, and it’d been weeks since I’d killed Augusta. It wasn’t as if I’d done it in cold blood. She’d had it coming, after what she’d done to me and Benjy—after what she’d done to her own family, trying to kill her daughter and granddaughter—but apparently my conscience wasn’t interested in listening to reason.
Nor did I have any ends to justify my means. Killing Augusta hadn’t done me any favors—it had only removed Daxton’s leash completely, leaving all of us in grave danger. And that, I thought, was the worst part of all. I’d saved Benjy’s life in the short term by pulling that trigger, but in the long term, we were both one whim away from death.
Daxton stood waiting for us by the double doors, his arms crossed as he regarded me with a look of mock concern. “I’m so very sorry, my dear,” he said, reaching out to take my free hand. I made a point of wiping my sweaty palm against his. “I wasn’t thinking. After all you’ve been through...”
“I’m fine,” I said for a third time. “I just need to sit down.”
“I’m sure your...friend will be willing to help you with that.” He eyed Benjy up and down, and red-hot anger shot through me. Augusta may have been the power behind the throne, but Daxton was still the snake who sat on it.
Benjy cleared his throat. “Knox asked me to help her,” he said. “I’ll be down after.”
“Take your time, boy,” said Daxton, and he shifted his gaze to me. “The most important thing is that dear Lila’s all right.”
His slimy voice followed me even after Benjy and I walked away. I could feel his stare lingering on us, and though my knees still shook, I forced myself to walk faster toward the elevator. As soon as we were inside and the door closed, I let out a breath and turned into Benjy, hugging him tightly and burying my face in his chest.
“I’m sorry,” I said, my voice muffled by his shirt. “I don’t know what happened.”
He wrapped his arms around me protectively, rubbing circles on my back, and the heat of his body warmed me from the inside out. If I could have stayed like this for the rest of my life, I would have. “You have nothing to be sorry for. Those fireworks scared me, too.”