Six Months Later
For over three hours, a sea of stars disappearing into a dark horizon had been Dr. Arin Yalin’s only view from the window of the private plane. Then a glow split the horizon—growing larger and larger with each passing moment.
Arin’s new home came into view like a luminous mothership emerging from the horizon, drowning out the night sky from the ground as he drew closer. When the intense light started coloring the air a pristine shade of white, Arin pulled safety glasses from his shirt pocket and slid them on.
He’d reached Summit City’s outer security perimeter. When armed, the security system could blast an electromagnetic current into the sky strong enough to turn a satellite into a hunk of useless space junk. No unauthorized planes ever flew out this way. But if they did, this was where they would disappear. No one would ever look for them.
No one would be allowed.
The only way to get to Summit City—called 5-Tek by customers—was to be a genius willing to sign up for the one-way ticket, or a test subject no one would miss. Once you checked in at Summit, you never checked out.
Those were the rules.
Only one pilot and one plane had clearance to land there. Rumor had it that the pilot’s only navigation tools were the stars, like navigators of old, and that he lived on a private island whenever he wasn’t flying.
Maybe that was true, maybe it wasn’t. But there was no questioning that Summit City was a one-way trip for anything without wings and permission. That was a fact.
And Arin did not have wings.
He didn’t even have self-respect anymore. He had a Hail Mary of a shot to; pull off the impossible, with every likelihood failure would be the ultimate reward for his efforts. That didn’t bode well for his future. But, as a scientist, Arin had to accept that his self-interest had no collective benefit for the rest of the world. Only global harm.
Maybe it was too late to fix what he’d done, but it wasn’t too late to try.
If he failed, a whole lot of people were going to die. Millions, certainly; billions, likely. All because of him. Because he’d figured out how to turn a curious phenomenon into a weapon that immediately became the intellectual property of his employers.
And they had plans for it.
Arin had tried to undo the damage himself, but he was one man against a multi-billion dollar corporation with more power than most countries. It hadn’t taken him long to realize that the only way out was all the way in. And, while failure was almost certain, the only greater failure was not trying at all.
For the next six months, Arin would be the perfect 5-Tek employee in order to gain access to all the tools he needed. And, when the time came to make his move, he would go all in no matter what happened. Fate could take things from there.
Fate, Arin scoffed as the plane flooded so full of light he could no longer see the window or any other part of the plane, even with his glasses on. The luminous deluge shimmered and flexed as if it was alive, but Arin knew there was nothing sentient about it. Energetic currents did as they were told, to disastrous, neutral, or miraculous effect. It had no conscience. It was what it was.
The blinding light dimmed, revealing Arin’s surroundings bit by bit, until the glow of it hovered behind the plane like a man-made aurora borealis. Night stars once again twinkled overhead, and a five-pointed structure dominated the ground below—all light and metal. Arin removed his protective glasses.
This was it. He’d arrived.
One way or another, this was the beginning of his end.
A soft click sounded over the speakers before the captain’s voice spoke. “Good evening, Doctor Yalin. As you can see, we have arrived at Summit City.”
Yes. He would have needed to be in a coma to miss that fact.
“Management likes me to give you a fly around, at this point,” the captain’s voice continued. “You’ll see pictures of the city later on, but imagery never quite does it justice.”
Arin didn’t want to be impressed, but he was. His bosses were often overconfident in their creations, but Summit City merited the swagger.
“This will be your one chance to take in the design of the city with your own eyes,” the captain added. “Cameras up to 12 megapixels are allowed, and you will be permitted to keep your images afterward.”
Yes, please, Arin thought, pulling out a cell phone that would never have service again. It seemed like a good idea to have one familiar object with him when cabin fever set in, and the camera on the phone fell within standards. He’d wiped everything else on the phone clear, except for the SIM card with three pictures he needed for his work.
When the plane banked for its first loop, Arin took random shots out the window while studying the structure with his eyes.
Summit City was an architectural beast designed to survive any eventuality, whether dished out by men or gods. The most powerful bombs known to man could be dropped right on it, and people inside wouldn’t even feel a rumble. They would just keep working. No interruption.
At least, that’s what the introduction video boasted. Arin had been skeptical. Until now. Knowing a building was five miles in every direction, and seeing a building five miles in every direction, were two very different prospects, even with Arin’s mathematical mind.
As terrible as 5-Tek might be, Arin sensed that his reputation for being the smartest man in the room would not follow him here. For once, he might learn more than he taught.
When the pilot started a second loop around the city, Arin took it all in through the lens of his phone, snapping pictures that were a little less random. Yes, the full image of the building was inspiring and all, but Arin was a scientist. He cared about the minutia. The twelve megapixels management allowed for capturing details in unofficial images weren’t going to show him much, but it might show him enough.
He spent the next couple minutes zooming in on various access points, where the structure should hypothetically be weaker. If something was too miraculous to be true, it probably was.
In fact, it definitely was.
Summit City might be billed as the only thing on earth that could outlast the earth, but there wasn’t exactly third-party verification on those claims, which made the propaganda worth the paper it was printed on. There had to be a weakness. There had to be a way out.
Half-way through the third fly around, Arin went back to taking tourist-style photos of the full pentagram. Five was said to be the number of life in his circles, so Arin knew it was no accident that a five-pointed city was the hub for creating the technologies that decided what on earth got to live, and what didn’t.
Not that long ago, he’d believed humans had the wisdom to make decisions like that. He thought differently now.
“That concludes our fly-around tour,” the pilot said. “Please secure your seat belt. We’ll be landing shortly.”
Arin tucked his phone back into his pocket. He had no luggage. None was allowed. He would even have to surrender his clothes after landing. He didn’t care, so long as he got to keep the phone and the photos.
Moments after settling in for landing, the plane was swallowed into a vast indoor landing strip with glowing runway stripes. The wheels touched down an instant later, but Arin was too busy trying to look up high enough to see the ceiling of the hangar to care that they were on the ground. The hangar was much too vast for this simple plane to be its sole customer. A small skyscraper could fit in the space, and the roof definitely looked like it opened. It wasn’t proof that the rumors were true, but it upped the chances.
Three men approached the taxiing plane, one dressed in the 5-Tek scientist uniform, and two guards. Summit City was an unabashed police state. Arin considered the resident militia an inefficient use of resources in a city where the floor could kill one person while leaving the person next to him untouched. But Arin wasn’t here as a quality inspector. He was here to invent.
And invent he would.
Undoing his seatbelt, Arin stood and gave his muscles a stretch. When the plane jerked to a complete stop, he gripped the seat to stay upright before taking a breath and walking to the main door. The door opened before he reached it, and one of the guards lowered the stairs for him to deplane. The fellow scientist waited for Arin to start down the steps before speaking.
“Welcome to Summit City, Dr. Yalin.”
“Thank you,” Arin said, covering the distance between them and gripping the man’s hand.
Firm, unforgiving, and a little too tight.
A handshake said a lot about personality, and this guy was pretty much what Arin expected.
“I’m Dr. Matthews,” the man said, releasing Arin’s hand. “I manage all new acquisitions. I understand you brought a camera phone with you?”
Arin reached into his pocket. “I did.”
Dr. Matthews took it, plugging a small device into its main port while watching the screen. Several seconds later, three soft chimes sounded.
That couldn’t be good.
Arin took an even breath and played it cool as Dr. Matthews’ eyes narrowed on the phone before turning it to show what had been flagged—the three pictures Arin had been hoping to hide under copious pictures from the plane.
Time for Plan B.
“This woman is wanted,” Dr. Matthews accused.
“I know,” Arin said, smirking a little bit as Matthews’ eyes went back to the pictures with interest. It was human nature to look at pretty images. The woman in all three pictures had olive skin that seemed to glow, paired with ice-blue eyes and coffee hair. The striking face was a nice cherry on top of a body that could sell any kind of athletic apparel it wanted.
To say the woman was wanted was to toe the line of double entendre.
Arin leaned in closer. “I figure that makes these pictures fair game, right? We can’t catch her with just headshots. There are other features to recognize her by.”
Arin had read the rules carefully while planning, and they were oddly undefined on this particular topic. Technically speaking, the images were neither approved nor forbidden, which meant what happened next all came down to Dr. Matthews’ discretion.
“I plan to bring her in within the next six months,” Arin said, letting Dr. Matthews see how serious he was. “To do that, I need visual access of all relevant dimensions for my program.”
Dr. Matthews’ face gave away nothing. “Private images are prohibited. Anything that stays gets added to the global library.”
“That’s fine,” Arin said, knowing all his images had already been uploaded to the mainframe. The question now was whether he’d get to keep them on the up-and-up, or if he’d be forced to adjust his approach.
Matthews thought for a moment before handing the phone back to Arin.
“For science,” he said with a smirk that almost seemed friendly. Was it possible Matthews liked him? That could definitely help work things in Arin’s favor.
The man reached out to shake hands with him. “We’ve been looking forward to your arrival. You already have a few fans making molds for prototypes you submitted with your application. Hope you’re ready to hit the ground with both feet running.”
Arin shook his hand and released it. “I don’t see any other way if I want to test the prototype in six months.”
“An ambitious timeline,” Dr. Matthews said, a skeptical curve to his brow.
“I heard you like ambition here.”
“True enough,” his supervisor agreed as if he had bets and backup plans going both ways. “For now, let’s get you changed and show you to your quarters.”
Standing in an elevator, wearing a 3-D printed mask that made her look like her supervisor, Nadia, Claire Ramsey had a passing thought that the term “crazy girlfriend” just might apply to her.
In her defense, the tipping point between “crazy” and “best business practices” could be tricky in her line of work. For example, Jack wore disguises all the time when he needed to get something done.
Just like flying away on a jet earlier that morning had also been normal for him.
What wasn’t normal was how long this trip had been planned, and how long Jack, Margot, and Ren would all be out of communication.
They were all disappearing for three days and Claire was supposed to…what? Go on that cruise they bought for her and take in the sun?
Claire wasn’t built that way. And while that made her sound clingy, it wasn’t like that.
In the year since she started working with Jack, she’d gone way longer than three days without seeing or talking to him. But during those times, Margot always knew where Jack was and Claire knew where Margot was. Now Margot knew where Jack was, but Claire didn’t know where Margot was and she wasn’t able to get in touch with any of them for any reason.
It was obvious that Jack, Margot, and Ren had gone somewhere together. But when Claire had tried to get Jack to admit as much weeks ago, he’d dodged answering.
Why not just admit that they were all going somewhere together? What was with the secrecy? It made her anxious, and she’d been doing very well with her anxiety lately, thank you very much. She still had moments, but they passed and never impacted the end-result of her work. The last couple of months, Claire had even started daring to believe that her OCD was curable.
Then this trip landed on her radar, and her newfound composure had tattered and scattered like Tibetan flags in a windstorm.
All she wanted to know was where the three of them went, why they’d hidden the fact they were going together, and why she wasn’t invited. That wasn’t asking too much, was it?
Apparently, it was because they’d never told her.
It hadn’t been until six weeks ago that it occurred to Claire that this might be a test.
Margot was always trying to get her out from behind the computer and into the field. She said that Claire was more valuable if she could do her work onsite, which seemed unnecessary. Everything was so much better when Claire was in a nice, safe office. She concentrated better. There were fewer distractions. Claire could block everything out and focus on Jack, and that was better for everyone.
Maybe this whole secret weekend was a diabolical plan to drive Claire crazy enough to “go out into the field.” And maybe Margot had intentionally let Claire see that her identity would be locked out of the building in their absence, and her key code generator disabled until their return. Perhaps Margot wanted to see if Claire would rise to the challenge of walking the walk and not just talking the talk.
Either that, or Claire was breaking into a locked facility with a stolen keycard, wearing someone else’s face. If that was the case, she was about to spend the next three days in jail because no one would be around to bail her out for breaking and entering.
You’re not going to get caught, she assured herself.
No one plans on getting caught, genius, doubt whispered back just as the elevator moved past the twelfth floor.
She took a deep breath and reminded herself not to listen to last-minute jitters.
Everyone got performance anxiety at show time. At least, that’s what she’d heard, and it was good for her sanity to believe it at the moment.
Claire’s track record wasn’t exactly packed with instances of her doing the brave thing. She was more the type to calculate the probability of success and choose the safest route.
Well, not anymore. Tonight, she was unveiling a brand new Claire.
If Margot and Jack had devised this whole plan of dropping off the earth to get her out of her shell, then … job well done. Claire was sweating through her business blazer and every inch of skin itched under her Nadia mask, but she was definitely out of her Claire shell and ready to blow their minds with her newly acquired B&E skills.
If this was a test, she was on track to pass it. This wasn’t some idea she’d hatched up last night. She’d spent six weeks revisiting every detail and making sure every base was covered.
“You’ve got this,” Claire muttered through a calming exhale, willing the elevator to finish its climb. It must be her nerves, but it felt like it was going half-speed.
You ride this elevator a minimum of four times a day, a little voice whispered in the back of her mind. You know what slow feels like. You know something is different right now.
No. No. No.
Starting to second-guess things now would feed a runaway mental train she had no desire to play chicken with. There was no slow-elevator conspiracy. Her brain only wanted an excuse to freak out.
Well, too bad.
“I’m doing this,” she muttered to herself. Followed by, “I’m doing this. I’m doing this.”
Uh-oh. She was starting to think and speak in threes. That wasn’t a good sign.
Claire took another deep breath, closing her eyes and reminding herself that she had two choices in the moment: run and hide, or take a chance.
“Actions speak louder than words,” Claire whispered as the elevator dinged its arrival on the top floor.
This was it. Game on.
She pulled Nadia’s forged keycard out and glanced at her watch. The current time was 5:21:46. In 74 seconds, she would have a ten-second window to enter a sixteen-digit code. If she missed the window, then that was that.
The sixteen-digit code regenerated every ten seconds, and Claire knew the number the system would accept at 5:23:00 like most girlfriends knew the code to their man’s lock screen. The algorithm that generated the code was supposed to be unpredictable, but math was math and Claire had always been good with numbers.
Using Nadia’s face to get inside without tripping alarms was the hard part. Claire dug around in her replica of Nadia’s purse to make standing around look a little more natural to whoever was watching on the cameras.
One minute left.
When the rummaging started to feel a little excessive, Claire pulled out her phone and started reciting the sixteen-digit code in her head—looping it again and again (and again)—to distract herself from the ping in her gut that whispered she was missing something.
She refused to listen.
What if Jack doubted himself when he was out in the field? What if he flinched back when he needed to push forward?
Where would they all be then?
Claire needed to do what Margot had been pushing her to do for months and start stepping into her power.
She. Could. Do. This.
When time hit 5:22:50, Claire walked over to the door, key card ready.
Three… two… one.
Claire swiped the card and punched in the sixteen digits. The light flashed green, and the door lock released.
Boom. She was in.
Claire wanted to congratulate herself on ninety-six hours well-spent to get that part right, but this was a timed event. She had thirty seconds to enter a secondary code inside the doors, and two minutes to log in at Nadia’s desk.
You’re missing something, a voice in the back of her mind whispered. When Claire ignored it, it upped its taunting. You’d need an abacus to count what you’re missing right now.
Refusing to be bullied by her own cowardice, Claire entered the standard code into the secondary security system.
Another green light. Hurdle two complete, and one more to go.
A study of Nadia had revealed she was one of those types who only changed her password when a system popup forced her. Those popups appeared every three months in the office, and her last password change had been two weeks ago. She’d reset it to C@pta!nAm3ric@. Hard to guess, but easy to memorize.
Quick steps took Claire from the second security panel to Nadia’s computer. The press of a key brought the computer out of sleep mode, and all Claire had to do was type in the password before the lights for the entire floor came on as if it were normal work hours.
Success! The floor was officially clear … so why was she twice as nervous as she’d been on the elevator?
Claire looked up from Nadia’s screen and down the hallway to Margot’s office.
Don’t do it, an invisible voice warned. You won’t see what’s coming next.
If the little voice hadn’t swayed her before, it was definitely falling on deaf ears now that her plan was on track. She refused to allow vague fears to dictate her actions when she was standing in the middle of planned success.
What was the point of breaking in only to run away from what you came for?
Going into Margot’s office was a requirement now.
Stepping away from Nadia’s desk, Claire walked down the hall to Margot’s office. She walked these halls every day, but nerves suddenly had everything feeling unfamiliar and a bit hostile.
A desk can’t be hostile, she reminded herself. A desk was a desk. She knew that. This new sensation of being watched from every direction was a trick of the mind.
Everything’s fine, she coached herself, still walking. It’s your imagination. Nothing’s moved. You’re fine. It’s fine.
You’re missing something.
No. That was not the inner voice she needed right now. Ignoring it, Claire doubled-down on her pace until her hand wrapped around the cool doorknob. A turn and a step later, she was in.
See? Claire thought as she stepped into the familiar office. That wasn’t so hard. No reason to—
Her eyes locked on the only movement in the room: a timer counting down on the wallscreen.
3:32 … 3:31 …
That was new.
What was it counting down to? And why? Claire had no idea, which meant she didn’t know where to start in stopping it. Although finding its control panel seemed like a great first step.
Knowing Margot’s desk was the best place to start, Claire raced over and took a seat.
“Okay,” she breathed, trying to focus. “There should be a prompt or something, right? Do I just need to log in?”
Pulling a recorder out of her pocket, Claire pressed play.
“Let’s get to work,” Margot’s voice said out of the speaker, which woke up the screen but did nothing to stop the clock. Claire tried moving the cursor over the timer and clicking. Nothing.
I told you, the little voice in her gut taunted.
“Shut up!” she hissed. “You couldn’t have seen this coming.”
You’re right, it replied. I saw the other thing you missed.
No. No. No.
She couldn’t entertain self-defeating taunts right now and start breaking down. She needed to focus on answers, not fears.
“Think, think, think,” she muttered to herself, looking around. The countdown was probably a secondary alarm. Margot didn’t leave anything to chance, and this building was basically her castle.
Claire closed her eyes, imagining the room with all its details before looking to see if anything new had been installed that might account for this unforeseen hiccup.
The room was exactly how she remembered it, and the clock was nearing two minutes.
She needed to make a choice: did she want to find out where Jack and Margot were, or did she want to keep looking for the code to the counter until security forces descended upon her?
Given that the latter seemed inevitable at this point, Claire moved back to the desk and went all in on Plan A: Find out where everyone was.
She selected the next file on the recorder and pressed play.
“Authorize Claire Ramsey as a user,” Margot said from the speaker, and Claire swallowed back her guilt for breaking her boss’s trust.
“Welcome, Claire,” the computer said.
“Hi there,” she replied, trying for normal. “Pull up the GPS locator, please.”
The wall filled with an atlas image of the earth. Claire took a breath, telling herself she was ready for both a best- and a worst-case scenario with what came next.
“Show me the locations of Jack, Margot, and Ren,” she commanded.
An Error icon popped onto the screen before the computer replied. “I’m sorry. That function is unavailable.”
Unavailable? How was that possible?
“Show me their last known locations,” Claire said, glancing at the countdown clock again. 1:43 …1:42 … 1:41 …
A glowing dot appeared in the middle of the South Pacific.
Well, that wasn’t helpful.
Claire pulled out the keyboard Margot never used, her hands flying over the keys to pull up the flight plans filed by the pilots of both Margot’s and Jack’s flights.
There were none. As far as paper trails went, their flights didn’t exist.
What was going on? It was one thing not to leave a trail in the real world, but Margot always kept her own records. Nothing was ever omitted there.
1:04 … 1:03 … 1:02 …
“Focus, focus, focus,” she coached herself. What was she missing?
0:53 … 0:52 …
She clicked on the countdown clock, searching for its source code. It didn’t seem to be attached to the computer’s operating system.
Focus, she told herself. You have forty-eight seconds. What are you going to do with them?
Taking a moment to reflect, Claire made the choice to pull up the security cameras in Margot’s jet hangar and rewound the footage to when she knew Margot left. When she reached the part where Margot pulled up her Tesla, Claire pressed play.
An SUV pulled up behind the Tesla and Ren stepped out. He motioned for two men to stay with Margot before stepping onto the jet for a security check. No doubt it had already been screened, but Ren never took chances when it came to Margot’s safety. Ever.
Everything looked normal to Claire, except for the amount of luggage. Margot was a heavy packer, but the bags for this trip made it look more like she was moving into a second home than taking a weekend trip.
Based on the body language of the men loading the jet, most of the boxes appeared quite light. They definitely weren’t moving gold bricks. And was that a hat box? The last time Claire had seen one was in her grandmother’s closet, but it had looked similar to what she was seeing now. In fact, it looked like 90% of everything being loaded might very well be clothing of some sort.
Intrigued, Claire didn’t notice the countdown clock again until it stopped.
No alarms went off. No red lights started flashing. It just zeroed out and…nothing.
Was it a decoy? That would be far too convenient, and Claire had a sheen of sweat over her entire body that told her the countdown clock definitely came with consequences. If nothing else, it was only a matter of time before security popped up like a jack-in-the-box.
She stared at the office door, half waiting for someone to bust in and catch her. Or maybe they’d come at her through Margot’s private elevator.
Whatever the case, she’d look them in the eye when they came and accept her fate.
“You prioritize like a woman in love,” a baritone voice said from behind her, causing her to literally jump up out of her seat and scream like a little girl.
Claire was not alone.
There was an intruder—a dark-haired man with unreal green eyes that somehow caught the light as he lurked in the shadows. Tall and fit, he looked ready for a fashion shoot in his dapper suit and close-trimmed beard.
Do. Not. Scream…again. Do not freak. Coherency is your only bargaining chip, and you work here. He doesn’t.
For the first time that day, Claire wasn’t arguing with her instincts. They were definitely getting this one right.
“How did you get in here?” she accused.
“Someone left the door open.”
Oh. Yeah. That would be her. She opened the floor. And left it open.
But that still didn’t explain what this man was doing in Margot’s office wearing the most refined suit she’d ever seen. Part of Claire felt reassured that if this man was an assassin, it would be a tidy affair. He wouldn’t want to get blood on his clothes.
“Who are you?” she asked, trying to get a sense for exactly how much trouble she was in.
“I’m the boss’s son.”
That made no sense. “Margot is the boss.”
He seemed to weigh her answer. “Depends on how you look at it. If you’re talking about the business, yes. That’s Margot’s. But if we’re talking about what brought you here tonight, then Jack works for my father. His line has served ours faithfully for many years. We like Jack.”
Wait. What? Claire knew Ren’s family had served Margot’s for generations, but she’d always thought that more as a bodyguard thing. Jack wasn’t a bodyguard. He was a problem-solver for the elite. When people growing into their power started doing things that threatened the safety of civilians, Jack was brought in to—
Something clicked in Claire’s brain.
It wasn’t like her to be the last one to catch on to something, but everything Claire had seen in the past year fit very nicely into this man’s claim. When a job came in, Jack and Margot did it. They didn’t argue over its merit or vet the client. They solved the problem.
Because someone asked—allegedly, this guy’s father.
Either this man was an assassin sent to kill her, or the boss’s son had just caught her red-handed. Whatever the case, running away and pretending this never happened didn’t seem to be an option.
Stand your ground, instinct whispered.
“You need to make a choice before you speak again, Claire,” the green-eyed man said. “You must decide if you’ve been caught where you ought not to be, or if you’re exactly where you want to be.”
Um, both felt like traps the way he said them.
And, wait. Why was she assuming he was telling the truth and letting him take the power position in the conversation? Just because he had hypnotic eyes and the physical presence of an ancient tree didn’t mean he was some invisible boss’s son. He had no default high ground and Claire was a master negotiator. She’d developed and refined a program that allowed her to virtually pose as anyone she wanted—down to every relevant nuance—to gather information and influence events. She could navigate a conversation any way she wanted.
She’d never quite mastered the knack of doing the same thing in person.
Well, no time like the present. If she could handle this guy through a computer, she could outsmart him in person.
Claire’s chin came up a half inch as she looked into those green eyes dead on and…told the truth.
“I don’t think either of us are supposed to be here.”
The man’s head tilted with interest. “True. I’m supposed to be at a ball right now, and you’re supposed to be on a well-deserved, company-sponsored vacation. Yet here we are. What are the chances?”
Pretty high, considering they had both definitely planned on showing up in Margot’s office that night.
Claire spent another moment taking in the man’s manicured elegance as he stood at an unthreatening distance, giving her space. The distance was an illusion of safety, of course. This man had a physical advantage over her, but he was making a point to give her breathing room for some reason. It made her trust him a little bit, which was probably the point. Whatever he had planned would play out easier if she had her guard down.
She couldn’t fall for it.
Clearing her mind of all preconceived notions, Claire took in the intruder with fresh eyes.
He was masculine from haircut to shoes, yet somehow more beautiful than some of the vainest women Claire knew. What wasn’t symmetrical about him was a vision of asymmetrical balance, and part of Claire’s mind shut off as she looked at him, simply enjoying his tailored perfection. What the Akhal Teke was to horses, this man was to humans. There was an inexplicable shine and glow to him.
It was hard to believe she was looking at an assassin. It was more likely she was looking at someone who might possibly be more OCD than her. In fact, based on his tailored clothes, he was definitely more OCD than her.
“I think current evidence supports that neither of us is here by chance tonight,” Claire finally managed to reply.
The man smiled, revealing perfect white teeth that made his skin appear more bronze than she’d initially noted. He stepped forward. “This life is nothing if not a game of chance, my dear, with every creature doing their best to play the odds of the cards they are dealt.”
Intrigued by the philosophical slant of his words yet terrified by his forward momentum, Claire focused all her energy on holding her ground as the man moved to stand across from her.
“Is that your answer to my question?” he said.
What question? It wasn’t like Claire to forget, but she was drawing a blank. He seemed to sense her confusion, and asked again.
“Did I catch you here by chance, or are you right where you want to be, Claire Ramsey?”
This is not a man you are going to outsmart, her gut whispered, again telling her something she already knew. Claire could count on one hand the number of times she’d met someone she didn’t stand a mental chance against, but she’d never felt more certain she was out of her depth than that moment. Something about this guy didn’t seem entirely human, and Claire was fairly certain she’d tripped onto his game board. A game was afoot, and he was trying to tell her it was her move.
Play dumb, or play ball? That was the question. But no matter how she answered, it was clear this man—boss’s son, or not—was here to play ball. He wanted something.
He stood there, the model of patience, as Claire made her decision.
“You already know the answer,” she said, almost as an accusation.
“I believe so,” he agreed. “But do you?”
The man had a knack for questions.
“Does Claire Ramsey want to step forward or backward today?” he mused.
Only one answer came to mind.
His green eyes found hers again, just as one of Margot’s security guards stepped into the room from the hallway. Lennox. Claire knew Lennox. He would save her.
“You have two choices, Claire. We can either terminate your employment and Len can show you home, or you can join me at the ball, with Margot and Jack.”
Well, when he put it like that one option definitely sounded better than the other. But was he speaking in metaphors? A ball? Like, a literal ball with dresses and dancing?
“I don’t have a dress—”
“A dress will be provided,” he said with gentlemanly ease. “As will a carriage to the ball. Like Cinderella, you need only show up.”
Claire’s mind went back to the security footage from the airport hangar, and all the clothing she’d seen Margot loading onto the plane. The story of going to a ball fit.
“There is even a glass-footwear option, if you like,” he continued. “But I will warn you that I hear glass shoes make for awkward dancing. Sweat and glass don’t go well together. But, if you want to suffer in the name of fashion, I can assign a footman to wipe them with regularity.”
There was no way he was being serious. Yet, one look later, Claire could only believe that he was.
“Why?” she asked. “Why are you here?”
“Like I said, we like Jack. Jack likes you.”
Claire’s heart fluttered, hearing this man say the words so simply. She hated that her cheeks flushed with pleasure, and that the man noticed.
“That said, your current working arrangement is not tenable,” he continued. “You are holding him back in many dangerous ways. Jack finds this added risk acceptable. We do not.”
We? Who was “we”? She looked over at Lennox for a hint, but the man’s face was stone as he stood like a soldier waiting for an order from a commanding officer. And that commanding officer was not her.
“I think, if you knew the full picture, you would also find his risks unacceptable,” he continued, his gentle tones very convincing. Maybe … hypnotic? “I think you would agree with us that it is time for you to step forward or back, on your own terms. Either you belong in our world, or it’s time for you to save Jack’s life by stepping fully out of it.”
The man took another step forward, and this time Claire was inexplicably okay with the move.
Yep. This guy was dangerous.
“Your personal entanglement with each other convolutes the issue,” he said. “Feelings always do that. But the issue itself is cut-and-dry: Your internship must evolve. It’s time to see if you want the job and the job wants you. That’s option one. Option two is to leave with Lennox now, and never work with Jack again. It’s your call. Whatever your choice, I need you to ask me for the outcome you want as specifically as possible.”
“So…” Claire hedged. “To be clear, you’re saying I’m not fired as of this moment? Being hired or fired is still on the table?”
He smiled. “I see we understand each other. Although I would clarify that statement to say perma-hired or perma-fired. There are no second chances either direction. But you need to voice your preference now because the ball isn’t going to wait for Cinderella, and you have a very narrow window to impress the Prince.”
Did this guy ever speak normally? Cinderella? Ball? Prince? What were all the metaphors about?
Somehow being annoyed by that was easier than acknowledging the man’s claim that Claire wasn’t pulling her own weight on the team and putting Jack in danger. A huge part of her wanted to accuse the man—whose name she really needed to find out—of lying about that. But a small whisper in the back of her head brought to mind all the tense moments she had walked in on over the past few months between Margot and Jack … arguments that went abruptly silent as soon as she came within earshot.
Margot was worried about something, and Jack always seemed to be telling her not to worry. Neither of them ever discussed the issue with Claire.
The intruder pulled a pocket watch from his jacket and glanced at it. “You have ten seconds until you’re fired.”
Claire panicked, her heart triple-timing. “Why does this feel like a trap?”
His eyes stayed on the face of the watch. “Because I’m offering you a trip to where only fools dare tread, and you’re left asking yourself how much you trust the fool. Six seconds.”
His reply wasn’t comforting, but Claire knew her answer. Even if this man was asking her to walk into a trap, what choice did she have but to accept his invitation? Saying no meant game over. Period. And she didn’t want game over. She wanted in.
What if he isn’t the boss’s son? She glanced at Lennox and knew he wouldn’t answer. Boss’s son or not, the bearded man was definitely in charge.
“Yes,” Claire blurted, certain she’d regret the answer the moment it left her mouth. There were so many ways for this to turn bad.
So. Many. Ways.
The bearded man didn’t look concerned at all. He looked intrigued. “You’re saying yes to the dress, and no to your old world? Forever and ever, amen?”
Was she? The way he said it, the commitment felt biblical. If the verdict was still out on whether breaking into the office tonight was full crazy, then the verdict was definitely in on this madness.
Saying yes to this invitation, without consulting Jack about who this guy was and what his motives were, was full crazy. No question.
“Yes,” she repeated, proud when her voice didn’t shake.
The man tucked his watch back in his pocket. “Very well. Then please state your answer in the form of a request. Ask what you wish from this night, as specifically as possible.”
Asking a woman with OCD to be as specific as possible? Did this guy know who he was talking to?
Whether he did or not, Claire decided to aim for middle ground in her response.
“Will you please take me to wherever Jack is, and teach me whatever I’ve been missing over the past year? Give me a chance to keep this job. I know I’m not perfect, but show me how to fill the gaps. I know I can do it, whatever it is.” Her confidence wavered as soon as she heard those words, and she backpedaled a bit. “Or at least I can try.”
The man smiled slowly, as if she couldn’t have asked any better, and it made Claire feel proud for some silly reason. He made eye contact with Lennox next, and the guard left the room as the man gestured toward Margot’s private elevator.
“This way, if you please.”
Wait. Just like that? She couldn’t just go … could she? She’d opened the floor and logged on to computers, and there was still the mystery of the countdown clock that needed to be addressed.
Feeling a bit flustered, Claire looked back at the wallscreen. “I need to shut down everythi—”
He held up his hand to silence her. “Ace?”
Ace? What was he—
“Yes, Malachi,” an androgynous voice replied over the speaker system.
Claire jerked in surprise at the new voice. She’d never heard it before, but the man definitely had.
“Please secure the building, once we are clear,” he said, as if addressing a trusted servant.
“Of course,” the voice replied.
Malachi gestured toward the elevator. “There. Now that’s settled, shall we be on our way?”
Too stunned to move, Claire eyed the speakers. “Who were you just talking to?”
He smiled patiently. “Ace is the AI that runs all our systems.”
That didn’t make any sense. “Are you saying I outsmarted an AI when I broke in here tonight?”
Malachi laughed. “No. Ace was instructed to let you in if you put any effort into the task of breaking in.” He tapped the pocket with the watch in it. “Now, I’m afraid I must insist that we get going. Time is ticking on a lateral timeline, so mental scrutiny is best saved for when you have more information to work with anyway.”
He spoke like no one Claire had ever met before, but she liked it. Something about what he chose to say and how he chose to say it made sense to her. It felt logical, yet there was nothing logical about any of this. Her mind could do the math on the past several minutes of her life, and there was nothing normal about it. She’d been caught breaking into her boss’s office by the son of a boss she’d never met who was now saying she needed to dress up like Cinderella and go to a ball if she wanted a shot at getting hired?
That made zero sense.
So why was she willing to go?
This will either be the best or worst decision you ever make, a small voice said inside her. To find out, you have to go.
Claire found little comfort in that uncertain truth as she walked to the private elevator, which opened automatically at her approach.
An AI had done that? How had she missed the fact that an AI was wired into the building for an entire year?
Feeling as stupid as she was probably being, Claire took a deep breath and stepped into the elevator. Either this guy really was the boss’s son, or he was Jack’s arch nemesis. Whatever the case, it was best to play along with Malachi until his story started falling apart.
Then she’d freak out. Hard.
When the elevator doors shut, Claire expected the usual quick ride to the basement tunnel. Instead, she felt a quick rise before they stopped again.
She glanced at the elevator buttons, verifying that there was no button for a level above Margot’s penthouse office. The only floor above her office was the roof, and the elevator didn’t go there.
When the elevator opened again, a helicopter blocked the view of the Las Vegas cityscape, propellers spinning and ready for takeoff. On either side of the helicopter stood Uriah and Josh, two of Margot’s most trusted guards. They saluted when they saw Malachi.
They never saluted Margot.
You are in way over your head here, a nervous voice warned as she followed a man she’d known all of five minutes onto the helicopter. Few things were more certain in that moment than the fact that this was going to be the best or worst choice she’d ever made.
“Poftiți! Tessék!” street vendors called out, holding up their wares at makeshift tables along the busy sidewalk.
Hood up, head down, Kali blended into the flow of the crowd. A virtual sun beat down on her, giving her the sensation of heat and a feeling of thirst. Knowing they were imagined states, Kali kept her focus on her surroundings. The local language seemed to be a split of Romanian and Hungarian, but Kali had yet to identify anything that definitively placed her in a specific country.
All she knew was that she needed to find food. Soon.
The aroma of chimney cakes filled the air with the temptation of quick energy, while the more savory smells of sausage-based dishes called out to her increasingly rubbery muscles.
Keeping pace with the flow of pedestrians, Kali made note of the merchandise splayed out on blankets and tables without making eye contact with any of the vendors. Bootleg DVDs and handmade wares seemed to be popular. Clothing was either traditional and hand-stitched with colorful flowers, or the fashion equivalent of single-ply toilet paper imported from China. Fake Rolexes, electronics, and paste jewelry abounded, all trying to seem like a bargain compared to the real deal.
Kali kept moving, reading the surrounding conversations as they turned into ticker-tape text at the bottom of her vision.
“Poftiți la castraveți! Tessék az uborkát!”
Someone was selling cucumbers, but not outside. The voice came from a large square building with a steady flow of people walking in and out of it.
Oh, yeah. This was totally a trap. It didn’t matter, though. Eating was non-negotiable at this point. She knew it, and the computer knew it. She had to go for it, or the next place the system dropped her might be a desert, and then she’d be screwed.
Kali followed the voice into the official marketplace. Food booths came into view, chickens and sausages hanging from rough wood beams. All the signs were in Romanian, and Kali quickly noticed that none of the vendors allowed customers to choose their own products.
Money first. Handoff second. No touching the merchandise until payment was received. These vendors were not the type to take getting ripped off lightly. They would engage.
Kali pretended to be interested in the produce booth off to her left as an excuse to get an eye on the exits. Stealing food in the VR world was the only way to get herself fed in the real world. Kali had yet to figure out a way to outsmart the VR program when it came to that. Her mind might be in Romania, but in reality, she lay in a zero-gravity pod with IVs controlling fluid intake, catheters handling output, and headgear synching her brainwaves to the virtual environment while leaving her physical body in a paralyzed dream state.
Technically, there was nothing real about anything she was experiencing, except for the fact that everything she did in the virtual environment affected her physical body in the pod. If she wanted those IVs to pump nutrients into her body, she had to steal some virtual food.
In the meantime, the IVs would give her a steady diet of all the serums that would send her into a killing rage. Reinforcing assassin best practices was the point of the program, and most trainees got that done long before starvation set in. Kali was the exception. Not killing the target meant the system locked her in the VR environment and made her earn her dinner.
More often than not, she chose to skip on the food options. With her brain wired to feel everything happening in a virtual world, sensations like hunger from the physical world resonated like echoes in the back of her mind.
But it had been a while since she’d felt full strength.
It had been longer than a while.
She shouldn’t have waited so long. Stealing food in a place like this meant being seen, and being seen meant attracting infantry into the area. It was inevitable. She was loaded into a combat program, after all. The whole point was to engage the enemy and emerge the lone survivor. But for the past who knew how long, Kali had been using the program to see how well she could hide before being spotted, and to see how many “engagements” she could survive before someone found a weak spot and put an end to her run.
Today’s weak spot might end up being food.
She honestly had no idea how much real time had passed since she’d last eaten. Time was abstract in virtual reality. The reset button between deaths paid no heed to continuity. It wasn’t like a video game, where you regenerated in the same spot seconds after a miscalculation took one of your lives.
When Kali failed, she died. Everything went dark until a new program booted up with her fully intact again in a new location and an arbitrary time of day. New scenario, same goals—for both her and the program running it all.
Although … the scenarios had been looping a lot lately, some popping up more than others. Certain dynamics came up so often that she’d started to wonder if she was part of a security program running a quality check on itself. There was never any food in those sims. Just labyrinth-like hallways and sterile rooms that tracked everything by weight. No passkeys required in those spaces, because the walls and floors recognized everyone by their footprint, weight, and even breath.
Kali had needed to reload into that sim over a hundred times before she learned how not to die after taking a single step. That had been a fun challenge she never wanted to relive again. She’d take hawkish eyes in a Romanian market over those sterile halls any day.
A booth of pastries brought Kali’s feet to an involuntary stop. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she remembered that she didn’t like pastries, but that thought faded as abruptly as it appeared.
It wasn’t a matter of liking sugary dough; it was a matter of needing it. And right then, those pastries looked like God’s oven-baked love.
Kali glanced around, seeking an escape route for when the sharp eyes filling the market caught her red-handed. She needed an exit—impassable to anyone but her—to give herself a headstart big enough to down some food before the inevitable fight to follow. It wouldn’t be pretty, but few things in Kali’s life were anymore.
Searching out her options, Kali’s eyes landed on the last person she expected to see. And he was walking straight at her.
“Kali,” Jack’s voice said, his voice freezing the VR sim around her. Audio went silent and all images froze in place as Jack walked through them all like they didn’t exist. “I’m not here. This is a recording set to play automatically if your security is compromised on the island.”
He stopped in front of her, but his eyes didn’t meet hers. They focused as if looking into a camera lens. This was obviously a recording.
“If you’re listening to me now, you need to wake up and leave the island. Immediately. An unauthorized user has access to a database holding all your current information, so this location is burned for you. You will be leaving the island and never coming back. I hope you found what you were looking for while you were here.”
Part of Kali’s mind still registered intense hunger. She looked at the frozen scene with regret, knowing her chance to eat was gone. Couldn’t he have waited two more minutes?
“You know what to do,” Jack’s recording said. “All items you requested while running this scenario as a drill are being delivered to you as I speak. Be safe, get free, and I’ll see you on the other side.”
Then he was gone. Everything was gone, leaving Kali in darkness.
She heard a pressure seal break—the hiss of air rushing toward her before a firm surface pressed into her back from below. She tried to move but was met with paralysis until a little bell chimed like a kitchen timer.
Sensation flooded back into her body.
The motorized sound of machine gears removing her VR helmet got her eyes blinking open—unfocused at first, as her pupils adjusted to the flood of dim light. Her inability to focus visually confirmed that she was really awake, and the cherry on top of that awareness was the feeling of a catheter being removed.
“Ow!” she croaked, her vocal cords not exactly cooperating with the single syllable as they moved for the first time in who knew how long.
She reached toward the catheter, but her hands didn’t move an inch, thanks to the restraints of her bodysuit within the pod.
Her muscles ached as if she’d just finished a decathlon. She probably had. Every movement in the VR world sent a corresponding current through her muscles, allowing her to succeed or fail in the virtual world, based on the integrity of her real-world anatomy. If she was too weak to accomplish something in VR, she stole food and kept trying again and again until she succeeded.
It had definitely been days since she’d eaten. Her body felt like a hollow husk waiting for a strong wind to carry her to wherever all the autumn leaves ended up.
So, this is what you felt like after running electric currents through your body non-stop for an extended time. Muscles clenched, yet rubbery, with skin as sensitive as a sheet of bruises. Not good.
Mind over matter. You’ve got this, she coached herself as the top of the pod pulled away, revealing the isolated room she recalled from her last waking memory. Her bodysuit released next, seams splitting to allow her to sit up...if she could.
She started small, clenching her fist and raising her knee about an inch before sagging back into the table, exhausted.
Getting up was going to take some willpower. And some painkillers. And some adrenaline. And actual physical food wouldn’t hurt anything either, even though she sensed it had been long enough since she’d last eaten that she might just throw it all up.
She couldn’t think about of any of that, though. She had to stick to the plan.
Turning her head to the right, she looked for the rolling robot that always showed up with supplies whenever she ran this simulation. Sure enough, there it was. Ready and waiting.
At least something was working in her favor.
Step 1: Stab herself with the syringe on the robo-butler’s tray. Adrenaline.
That was going to suck. But there was no way she could do any of what followed next without doing that first. Without adrenaline, she’d be an invalid on a table.
It hurt too much to keep her head turned to the side, so Kali reached over blindly with her hand to feel out the syringe’s location—breathing through the pain of moving just one arm, not to mention her entire body.
Man, she really should have drilled the pain aspect of all this. She might have requested a few more items.
Her eyes fought against staying open as she located the syringe and popped its cap off with a shaky thumb. She took a breath, reminding herself this was not a drill.
This is life now, she reminded herself. Go find out if all this was worth it.
Then she grit her teeth, stabbed the needle into her thigh, and depressed the plunger.
If a satellite plummeted out of orbit, crushing Claire in that moment, it would find her being dolled up by the best of the best.
As far as disaster scenarios went, she was moving up in the world.
Just keep compartmentalizing, she coached herself whenever the reality of her situation started to set in. She’d made the choice to get on the jet. There was no point in playing the victim and hyperventilating about it now.
Better to just lean back and enjoy the included mani-pedi while taking surreptitious notes on her host.
Claire had been within ten yards of Malachi for over an hour now and, as far she could tell, the man had the body language of an expert poker player. Every movement he made seemed manicured and practiced … except one.
Back when Claire started working with Jack, she had noticed that whenever Jack needed to think, he pulled an old coin out of his pocket and rolled it across the back of his fingers. Malachi’s tell wasn’t all that different. Whenever he paused to think, he rubbed his thumb back and forth along the band of the gold signet ring he wore on his right hand. His eyes always dipped down as he reflected, suggesting he was thinking about something that mattered on an emotional level. Something he cared about.
Malachi had a soft spot … something he consistently strategized around. Claire didn’t know what that was yet, but focusing on finding out was much more empowering than tallying the many ways this whole situation could blow up in her face.
If it did, she had no one to blame but herself.
As if hopping onto a helicopter with a stranger wasn’t bad enough, Claire had voluntarily climbed aboard a jet on a private airstrip next, where a fully staffed beauty salon awaited. Four women and three men had descended on them immediately—five with Claire, two with Malachi. Everyone had their job, which seemed to come down to leaving nothing about Claire the same as when she boarded the jet.
They knew exactly how to take off her Nadia mask, and did it like it was the most normal thing in the world before redoing her look from the ground up.
Hair, makeup, nails, wardrobe … all of it happened to her before she could open her mouth to make a request. Including the waxing. Claire would have objected, but it was over before she could say stop. And she would have told them that waxing made her skin embarrassingly pink and agitated for a good eight hours, but then they rubbed something cooling into the waxed area and all the pinkness went away as they moved on to the next task.
This wasn’t their first rodeo.
In the back of the jet, an effeminate man looked over Malachi’s hair with a magnifying glass, fixing all imaginary stray hairs. Working alongside, a female assisted with his wardrobe change.
“Other side,” the woman working on Claire’s hair said, before spinning the chair so Claire could no longer see Malachi. The 180-degree turn pointed her more directly toward the diffuser that was pumping some heavenly smell into the air. Every inhale made it easy to lean into all the pampering and forget the almost-certain reckoning on the other side of this spa treatment.
She was already locked into the consequence anyway. Might as well enjoy the perks, right?
That’s the aromatherapy talking, her nerves warned. Don’t listen. Stay strong!
Her nerves weren’t lying. Whatever was in the diffuser was definitely making her more complacent than usual. That said, malleable Claire was currently sporting a gorgeous up-do with perfectly glossed fingernails that had never been more symmetrical … and she really needed to let the beauticians finish so she had the pedicure to match.
Feather-light brushes danced across her face, accompanied by the occasional instruction to “look up,” “look down,” or “close your eyes.” Claire did as instructed, her mind slowly catching up with the conversation she’d had with Malachi back at the office.
She kept replaying the moment when he’d spoken to the building, and the building had spoken back. That was the moment when she’d started believing he was who he said he was. Well, that ... and Lennox ... and the helicopter on the roof with Margot’s own men standing guard around it.
In retrospect, she’d been insanely naive to think she wouldn’t get caught. Knowing what she knew of Margot, there was no way anyone—including Claire—should have been able to break into the building. It made way more sense that all the known security precautions were decoys while a more stringent system ran things in the background.
That sounded much more like Margot.
Which meant the building had let her in on Malachi’s order and locked itself up after they left. That was no entry-level AI. And it explained everything except for the countdown clock on the wall and Malachi’s appearance out of nowhere.
“Dress time,” one of the women said, removing the apron dusted with makeup and trimmed hairs from around Claire’s neck. Claire glanced in the mirror, not recognizing herself at first. She looked … beautiful. Not pretty. Not really good, considering what she had to work with.
Claire couldn’t even imagine what to wear to top it all off. She usually stuck with pastels and earth tones, but the face staring back at her in the mirror needed something bold. Something fearless. Something memorable.
As two of the women pulled a massive garment bag from a storage area, Malachi stepped to Claire’s side of the jet and spoke for the first time since the helicopter.
“If you’ll forgive me, there is a bit of a dress code tonight,” he said. “Quite inflexible, I’m afraid. I took the liberty of choosing a dress for you.”
Claire looked at the two women moving the voluminous garment bag and decided it had to be some kind of old-fashioned gown. Malachi had repeatedly said they were going to a ball. If that was the case, it was probably better that he’d chosen the dress because Claire didn’t know—
When the garment bag was pulled away, Claire couldn’t believe her eyes.
It was her dress—her dress.
Not that she’d told anyone, but maybe—just maybe—she’d been toying with the idea of getting married recently. And maybe—just maybe—she’d seen this dress and thought it was perfect. It wasn’t sleek and form-fitting, like so many dresses were these days, but a little more Belle-in-the-gold-dress from Beauty and the Beast.
Only this dress was silver, with eight-pointed stars beaded into the fabric.
“It’s divine,” she gasped.
“I’m glad you approve.”
Approve? She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t think. All she wanted was to see what it looked like on.
“We land in forty minutes,” Malachi said. “I’ll give you privacy to finish up.”
Without another word, he walked to the rear of the jet, this time closing a curtain between them to give privacy to both sides.
Wherever she was going, Claire was pretty sure she was going to be the best-dressed one there. She’d never seen a dress this gorgeous in her life, and she’d been to more than her fair share of formal parties.
Oh, if Claire’s mom could see her now, she might actually approve of her. Not that Claire cared much about that at the moment. She cared more about getting that dress on. Immediately.
One of the assistants dragged a pedestal box in front of her. “Step up, if you will, my lady.”
My lady? Any other day, the term would have felt pretentious. Not today. Today, she most definitely felt like a lady, as layer after layer of clothing was added to her, starting with a shift. Her attendants might be people in their twenties, but they handled the period clothing with practiced fluidity.
She was grateful when they tightened the corset to an endurable fit that allowed her to breathe before helping her to step into petticoats that looked much heavier than they were. A lot of volume, not a lot of weight. Claire was pretty sure women a few centuries back would have killed for the innovation.
And the dress.
You’re either going to be Disney’s Cinderella or Stephen King’s Carrie tonight, one of her less-helpful voices volunteered as if she didn’t already know how wide the pendulum of her recklessness might swing.
Luckily for Claire, the gorgeous dress distracted her from ugly thoughts. It looked so much better on. Heavenly, even. The way the fabric swayed and moved with her? It was all but begging for her to give it a twirl. This was a dress made for dancing.
“We’ll be landing shortly,” one of her female assistants said, offering her a hand down off the pedestal. “Let’s choose your shoes.”
All five of her attendants walked over to the storage area, each returning with a shoe box. When the boxes opened, Claire had an uncomfortable realization. Just like the dress, she’d seen all these shoes before. She’d bookmarked them under Wish List back when she’d been feeling a little dreamy about the future.
Malachi had been watching her for a while. Or was it Ace?
Either way, it was hard to be offended, since she did the exact thing to others when helping Jack with a job. Malachi did what she did at work all the time; current evidence simply suggested he did it better.
Claire touched the second box from the right. “These,” she said, already knowing her order of preference.
The ones she’d put on her wish list several weeks ago had been bone colored, but the shoes in front of her were a silver perfectly matched to the dress.
“Wise choice,” Malachi said, appearing in an ivory court suit with a gold frock coat from the same era as Claire’s dress. Paired with Malachi’s dark hair and his green eyes, he had a half-rogue, half-monarch look about him that made Claire pretty certain her host was the kind of man who had his pick of ladies and knew it.
Jack would not be happy about her showing up with this guy. She could feel it. But he only had himself to blame, considering Jack hadn’t invited her and tried to ship her off on a solo vacation instead.
They were definitely going to have a talk about that. And crashing Jack’s private party on Malachi’s arm seemed like the perfect conversation starter.
“Dancing will be on the agenda tonight,” Malachi said, cutting into her hypothetical future arguments with Jack. “Based on your school transcripts, you learned all the required dances as part of your private school curriculum. I trust your sharp mind remembers them all.”
Dancing? A chill of nerves overshadowed Claire’s enthusiasm for the dress.
Sure, she wanted to give the dress a twirl, but … required public dancing?
Visions of awkward classroom pairings of a decade ago swam through her mind, flooding her with anxiety. Her instructor had told her she danced like a metronome—all technique, no heart. He’d said it in front of the entire class, earning laughs from everyone. After that, no one wanted to dance with the robot. True, she hadn’t had a line of suitors before her teacher’s comment, but any goodwill from guys willing to ask her to dance had dried up really fast after that.
Why didn’t Malachi tell her there would be dancing sooner? Maybe she wouldn’t have come. Okay, maybe she still would have agreed to come, but it would have been nice to have a heads up on the whole public humiliation part of the evening.
Or maybe this guy had taken a page from the Book of Margot and knew that Claire just needed to jump into everything without time to obsess.
No one will be looking at you. They’ll be looking at the dress.
In a shocking turn of events, Claire’s inner voice had something encouraging to say. It almost felt like a trap. But, trap or not, she was in this for the long haul now. If that meant dancing, Claire was going to dance, like the metronome she was.
“You look marvelous,” Malachi said, eyes examining the details of the dress for flaws. “Mind giving it a spin?”
The request was both odd and as natural as can be. Maybe it was the aromatherapy in the air, but Claire didn’t think twice before turning in a circle. Spotting like a ballerina, she could see Malachi’s eyes focused on hemlines, looking for hanging strings or missed details as his thumb absently rubbed against his ring.
What is he thinking about when he does that? She still didn’t know.
When she finished the turn, Malachi gave each of her attendants a look of approval. “Excellent. We’ll be landing in ten.”
He returned to the other side of the curtain and Claire’s attendants swooped back in, making finishing touches while she gazed into the mirror knowing she was going to remember this night for the rest of her life. Come what may.
Every part of Kali’s escape had been rehearsed into clarity … except for the last part.
The first time Kali had been brought to the island, she’d had some freedom and a few human overseers.
The second time Jack had negotiated her return, the terms had changed. The reward for her capture was too high to trust anyone with her location or identity. So she’d been locked in a wing of the facility with sensors reporting her well-being into a computer Jack could monitor.
That computer had been the one to make her run the escape simulation until she could do it on autopilot … up until the last choice.
In the updated version, she boarded a different plane at the end. She knew that, but it threw her off when she’d arrived in the hangar to find both the old and the new options waiting for her.
Recent drills told her to take option #2, while instinct told her to stick with the tried and true. Yet logic reinforced the idea that the tried and true had been compromised when she used it the first time around, so Kali snuck aboard a beat-up plane that looked like it vacationed in the Bermuda Triangle. In a hangar where everything was shiny and new, she was boarding the one plane older than her. But once she made it into the flight attendant’s luggage closet, she didn’t care how old the plane was anymore. She fit in the closet and didn’t have to move anymore; that was a win in her book.
Closing her eyes, Kali leaned her head against the metal wall and let herself relax in the dark, tight space. Every so often, a body part twitched as if a current of electricity ran through it. The random movements kept her from falling all the way asleep—or that’s what she thought until the sound of someone boarding the plane woke her.
How long had she been out? The adrenaline shouldn’t have faded that fast.
She stayed frozen as a man walked about the plane, moving in and out of the cockpit several times before finally shutting the cabin door and taking a seat. A moment later, Kali heard him close off the door that sealed him into the cockpit and the engine fired up.
About a minute passed, then the plane pushed back.
Finally. Kali was on her way, and all she could think about was the food that awaited her on the other side of the plane ride. Vegas wasn’t her favorite city, but it had restaurants. Pressing her forehead against the cool steel of the forgotten luggage closet, Kali started devising her dream menu.
Soup would be her starter. Something simple, with a lot of broth to remind her stomach how eating worked. If she kept that down, she’d move to a fruit plate. Berries with yogurt. She tried to dream up a third course to her meal, but her mind stayed stuck on soup and berries.
Heaven really came down to the simple things, it seemed.
After takeoff, it occurred to Kali that she didn’t have to spend the entire flight in the closet—not with the pilot’s cabin locked. She could get out. Stretch.
Hunt for food.
When the plane leveled out, she did just that.
The cabin was dark when she stepped out, drawing attention to the sunset outside the windows. She didn’t know what day or even what season it was, but she knew they were flying north.
A search of the cabin revealed exactly no food and a 24-pack of bottled water. She grabbed one of the bottles, nursing it tentatively to see how her stomach would react to the liquid.
What day was it? How long had it been since she’d physically eaten?
She was too weak to think about it all too hard, opting to take a seat in the cabin and stare out the window instead. Three or four sips of water later, her eyelids dropped and the world went dark until the moment a blinding light had her flinching in her sleep.
White light way too bright to be the sun blinded her through her eyelids and almost felt tangible in the air around, like a sea of lightning. Then, as quickly as it appeared, it was gone, night stars appearing in the sky and city lights appearing below. Had they just flown over the Luxor? Because, man, that was—
Terror replaced rational thought when Kali looked out the window and down at the pentagonal city below.
She blinked, rubbing her eyes and willing herself to see a different picture when she opened them again. It was a childish wish with a real-world result. When she opened her eyes, she saw the exact same scene as before she closed them.
Without a doubt, Kali had gotten herself onto the wrong plane. Because worst-case scenarios didn’t get any worse than what she was looking at. She’d run this sim hundreds of times. And she’d failed it every time.
This was the one-way city.
That’s what the people called it in the sim, and that had been her experience of trying to break out.
It wasn’t possible. Her only hope was to stay on the plane, undetected, and wait for it to fly back to the island ... which wasn’t possible because the floors in the hangar automatically weighed the plane for discrepancies while scanning it for heat signatures.
The second the plane landed, security would know she was on board.
Internally, Kali was freaking out while, in reality, she simply stared out the window gripping the water bottle in her hand. The four ounces she’d had to drink suddenly wanted out with an intensity that was making her cramp up a bit, making the whole situation that much more ridiculous.
She was heading into the most secure building in the world and her bladder was trying to make itself the most important factor in the room.
Not knowing what else to do, Kali laughed. She laughed until tears came and her bladder threatened to follow the lead of her tear ducts and start a waterfall of its own.
Well, Kali didn’t control much in her life at this point, but she could control whether she faced the last minutes of her life comfortably.
Ignoring the sharp decline of the plane as it made its approach to land, Kali found the cupboard-sized bathroom and put it to use. She was pulling up her pants when the plane landed, knocking her lightly to the side before the wall held her up.
There. Bladder solved.
Time to go face the music.
Her heart pounded even as her body stayed still. Survival instincts insisted she try something—anything—to get her through this, but hundreds of runs in a VR simulation had conditioned her that there was nothing to be done. The moment she stepped on the ground, software would identify her by weight and footprint and be able to locate her anywhere in the facility from that moment on. And as quickly as it could locate her, it could kill her.
There was no way around it, and she had yet to figure out how to escape a facility without touching her foot down while trained killers chased her. Her mind could scream all it wanted for her to do something, but Kali knew the long list of what she couldn’t do. That list included touching the ground. If she miraculously sprouted wings maybe she’d have a chance.
But as a small lake of people gathered outside the airplane’s door—some in medical coats and others in tactical gear—Kali knew even wings couldn’t help her. They knew she was here and they were ready.
A soft pop came over one of the speakers and a man’s voice spoke. “Are you ready for your final destination, Ms. Jensen?”
Man, it had been a long time since someone called her that. It wasn’t even her married name. It had been her name back when she was young and stupid and had gotten herself into this whole nightmare.
Hearing the old name messed with her mind for a moment. Kali might not be the biggest fan of her new name, but it certainly helped her keep things straight in her head. Old-her had died. Literally. There was a headstone, a widower, a grieving father, and friends who probably still hadn’t given up on her.
But if Kali thought about all that, she went crazy pretty quickly. Old-her had no place in this new world, and new-her could only endanger those she’d left behind.
‘Ms. Jensen’ was no longer in the building. Kali was, and she needed to figure things out. Fast.
The plane’s side door opened, and two guards with automatic rifles surged in. When they screamed for her to put down the water bottle, she laughed. She couldn’t help it.
They wanted her to put down the water bottle? Sure. She’d put it down.
Outside the plane, two men started arguing.
“I got her here. I get her for four hours,” one screamed. “Break your word, and I’ll burn this place down.”
Burn down a building made of pure metal? was all Kali could think. That would be a fancy trick.
“You’d be wise not to issue threats,” a second man replied, his voice cold and forceful.
“You’d be wise not to break your word,” the other man warned.
That was the last thing Kali heard before one of the guards pulled the trigger and the world went dark.
Claire stepped through the jet’s portal and into the clouds. Literally. Two minutes ago, she’d thought the fur coverup her dressers draped over her shoulders to be ostentatious, but she quickly drew it close against her as she stepped out into a brisk breeze that seemed to carry a hint of snow.
Straight across from the jet’s door, snowy white peaks stretched as far as the eye could see. The ridge they’d landed on stood at odds with it all, its edges smoothed into columns, arches, and towers creating structured symmetry against a rough backdrop—all of it seemingly carved into the mountain itself.
“Hood up, m’lady?” one of the dressers asked, indicating the hood on her coverup.
M’lady. The term was growing on her.
“Yes, please,” Claire said, starting to feel a little bit like an actor getting into character. She was wearing silk gloves and a gown of silver perfection. She couldn’t let her hair get wind-tossed out there. Now was a time to be high maintenance and take all the precautions. Her current styling was as impractical as walking around with a book on her head. Maintaining it would require a lot of third-party supervision, so Claire would take as much attention as possible in the name of not going full-pumpkin before midnight.
To her surprise, the cloak’s hood had a framework built into it so it didn’t touch her hair when raised. All of the function, all of the fashion, none of the fuss.
When Malachi appeared past the curtain in layered furs that looked like they belonged on a medieval royal, the whole situation started to feel a bit like a movie.
Who dressed like this? And how was the mountain castle outside real, and not CGI art on a green screen?
Was this the part of the dream where Claire realized she was dreaming? Had things just gone that one step past too weird to ring the alarm that this was all most definitely not possible?
She’d gone from starting out the dream sneaking into Margot’s office wearing a Nadia mask, to getting caught by an imaginary boss’s son, to getting “punished” by being flown to a private jet. There, she’d been pampered for hours before being dressed in a gown that miraculously fit in every way, and was now being escorted to the Neuschwanstein of mountain peaks by a man dressed up like a prince.
And all this without a single panic attack.
Claire was no expert on lucid dreaming, but this was all getting a little crazy. It had to be a dream. That said, she really didn’t want to wake up. She wanted to act like a princess for the night, go find her prince in that castle, and dance like a princess—not a metronome—for once in her life.
Thoughts of Jack pulled Claire’s eyes away from Malachi and back to the mountain palace. Suddenly eager to be there, Claire stepped out of the jet and into the frosty wind. The arctic air wrapped around her, touching nothing but the tip of her nose with its chill while she stayed warm under the cloak.
The air felt thinner outside, like she needed more of it to get the same amount of oxygen. Worried she might be waking up, Claire breathed deeply to keep herself anchored in the moment. Because this was amazing.
A glance each direction revealed plummeting valleys all around, like elemental centurions keeping the uninvited at bay. Finding the right peak out here without a map would be like finding one wave in the ocean.
Claire inhaled, taking it all in. So … this was what feeling small felt like.
Claire thought she’d experienced that particular sensation many times in her life—like all those times her parents had spent holidays away, or that time they’d forgotten to send someone to pick her up from school for summer break. But nope. Standing on a mountaintop dressed like a queen surrounded by endless mountain ranges and elements that would obey exactly zero of her commands was the true feeling of impotence. A thousand servants could star-stud Claire for hours, and she still wouldn’t hold a candle to this glory.
It was a lot to take in.
Claire spent her life obsessing over details … trying to control them. The more she could break something down and control its parts, the stronger she felt.
Standing on this peak felt like witnessing the opposite of herself.
The nature around her controlled nothing in its environment and yet somehow emanated power and peace.
How did it do that? How could she do that?
Was it even humanly possible?
When Claire returned her gaze to the mountain palace, it seemed more miraculous somehow. She hadn’t noticed before, but its entrance looked like it was carved out as if expecting giants, not men, to enter its arched gates. The airplane hangar to the right of it gave new perspective to the flight of stairs leading in.
So. Many. Steps.
Claire mentally measured the daunting staircase, reminding herself that, even if this wasn’t a dream, she was one of the people who went to the gym now. She did cardio five times a week. She could climb those steps in a ball gown. Definitely … maybe. Time would tell. But to find out, she was going to have to make it off the jet and down to the ground first.
Looking down from the jet’s doorway, all Claire could see was copious amounts of skirt glinting back at her. All that shimmering fabric might make her the belle of the ball later, but kind of made her as coordinated as a cat in a bathtub when it came to navigating teeny-tiny jet steps.
As if perceiving her dilemma, a militant man dressed in a black version of a British guard uniform stepped to the side of the railing.
Where had he come from?
The black fur cap on his head was the only sign that the man might be an actual human capable of getting cold. Everything else about him seemed impervious to anything but his duty to help her take eight steps without falling. He presented a hand in her direction to assist her descent.
Without hesitation, Claire accepted the help, noting that the man had the grip of a marble statue—his body more secure than the hand railing built into the stairs.
“Thank you,” Claire managed, her voice sounding slightly out of breath with the realization that this man had more strength in one arm than she had in her entire body. And while that was nice for the part of her that didn’t want to face-plant off the stairs, it was terrible for her sense of control, which was already reeling from taking in the view of the surrounding mountains and noting how remote all this was.
If this wasn’t a dream and Malachi had any ill intent at all, she was screwed. Seeing the mountains in all their majesty had felt poetic there for a second, but all that vanished after touching hands with the guard.
Reality check: She was the weakest thing on this entire mountain, dressed in impractical silk. The only thing she controlled at this point was whether or not she screamed.
Halfway down the stairs, lightheadedness set in, making her steps a little less confident. She tried to tell herself it was the thin air, but she was far too familiar with panic to miss its signature haze in her mind.
Claire cast a nervous look back toward the relative safety of the jet, part of her wanting to race back in.
Man, that aromatherapy wore off quick.
No screaming now, she coached herself, taking the final downward steps. If you were going to go full crazy, you should have done it before takeoff. It’s just pathetic now. You’re wearing a silver ball gown, for crying out loud! Have some dignity. Besides, gym or no gym, those stairs look tall. You might want to conserve your energy. You’re going to need it.
Humiliating visions of needing to be carried up the stairs had Claire taking three calming breaths as her footman escorted her.
In and out…she walked from tarmac to carpet.
In and out…she paused and noted that the air didn’t feel so thin anymore.
In and out…she nodded her thanks to her footman as he took his leave.
She didn’t feel better in the slightest, but if she could not freak out for three breaths, then she could do it for four. Then five. Then six. Then more.
She could do this.
Count the number of windows on the building, her false sense of control urged, offering her an olive branch on restoring mental stability. Counting windows was something Claire could control.
Malachi deplaned and stepped up next to her, offering his arm as an escort. “Shall we?”
This was it. Dream or not, this was the moment of commitment.
Last chance to freak out with any real credibility, a little voice warned. No playing victim after this. No wildly swinging on an emotional pendulum, and no being the weakest link. Game on, or go home.
Her inner voices were using sports metaphors now. Things really had changed in the past year.
I choose game on, she thought, sliding her arm through Malachi’s like a proper lady.
His encouragement seemed genuine when he said, “Let’s go meet the boss, shall we?”
“And Jack,” she clarified.
“And Jack,” Malachi repeated before looking back at the fortress. He took a breath as his gloved thumb stroked up against his signet ring finger. “And Margot.”
“They’re all inside,” he promised, not missing a beat. “And it’s much warmer in there. I promise.”
The not-so-subtle hint to start walking didn’t go unnoticed, but Claire still stole one last glance at Malachi’s glove, realizing that she wasn’t the only one anxious to see someone on the inside.
Malachi and… Margot?
I gotta see this, pretty much every voice in her internal peanut gallery said at the same time.
Buoyed slightly, Claire gave a prim nod and they both started forward.
Rank didn’t matter on a Day of Anemone; but if it did, Jack would be the bottom of the pile. The guest list for the ball consisted entirely of Royals Jack either hadn’t seen in twelve years or had never met at all. He’d heard tell of a few of them from Margot, but not much. The woman was pretty tight-lipped about her double life.
Now, not only was Jack in the same room as the Royals, he was seated in the fourth-highest place of honor as an adviser to the king-of-the-day.
He still wasn’t sure how he’d landed the gig, but he was going to enjoy every moment of it from his perch twelve steps above everything.
Sitting near the main throne gave Jack a bird’s-eye view of the action playing out below. Adjustable mirrors positioned all around the massive ballroom allowed those in the high seats to keep an eye on the guests. Their wants, their needs, their moods ... any last-minute covert moves.
The latter were definitely afoot. Today was a day of challenges and wit, after all.
Rather than gifts, each guest would offer Prince Abed a challenge. The prince’s ability to rise to each challenge then became a display of his development and worthiness of his station. If he succeeded in thwarting his challenger, he earned their respect; if he failed, the challenger became one of the prince’s mentors for the next seven years.
The Royals called the rite of passage the Day of Anemone. Everyone left their titles at the door, and the child ruled for twelve hours, choosing the venue, attire, customs, menu, and everything in between.
For his big day, Prince Abed had chosen eighteenth-century customs with the dress code of Rococo.
Jack hadn’t seen that coming from a twelve-year-old boy, but now that he was watching the event unfold from the prince’s viewpoint, it was a surprisingly intelligent choice. The gaudy extravagance of the Rococo era was about as high maintenance and cumbersome as eras came. The party was approaching its fourth hour and most of the women in attendance had disappeared into the powder room at least once each hour to keep their hair or dress from falling into disrepair.
The same oversight applied to the opulent décor and overflowing banquet tables, making discrete tactics nearly impossible for anyone to pull off unnoticed. Most of the women had to check their clearance three feet every direction before so much as turning.
Rococo was many things, but subtle and discreet were not among them.
The boy might be young, but like most Royals, he was no one’s fool.
Jack had heard more than a few Day of Anemone stories from Margot over the years…or at least the ones she remembered. Royal gatherings were the only time Margot indulged—and some might say overindulged—in alcohol. Her memories tended to be on the fuzzy side, but he’d gotten the impression that the only way for someone of his station to attend the event was as a servant or entertainer.
Yes, the child could choose any three advisers he or she wished on the day, but Jack had never heard of a non-Royal serving in the role. The very reason there were three advisers was to allow the child to choose one Royal from each banner to mentor them for a day.
According to Margot, Prince Abed had broken two traditions with his choice of advisers. First, he’d chosen no Royals. Second, all of the prince’s advisers were chosen from his own banner. It had been hundreds of years since someone had made the same choice, and everyone was watching. Even Margot, who liked to pretend she didn’t pay attention to Royal matters. But everyone paid attention when a prince chose three lessers—a spy, a general, and a fixer—when he could have his superiors at his service instead.
Jack had tried to pry more details out of Margot on the flight over, but her mind had been elsewhere. It always was when she knew she was going to be in the same room with Osment.
And Jack couldn’t blame her for that one bit.
Thinking of Osment had Jack glancing the man’s way. He was on the dance floor, Margot’s fingertips held properly in his own as they danced the minuet. No eye contact—no contact whatsoever, save that which was specifically required for the dance. And even that was done through gloves.
No wonder Margot distracted herself with drinking. And while Jack didn’t judge her for that, he had been counting her glasses of wine. It was never a bad idea to know how much alcohol a friend had in them at a party.
Margot was one of the most powerful people he knew, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t watch her back. Someone besides Ren had to. Margot was always taking care of other people while mainly receiving assaults on her power in return. It was a rough gig, and she definitely deserved a night off with friends looking out for her.
Heaven knew Osment wouldn’t.
The man was an utter waste of a husband who reportedly spent the bulk of his time gambling at parties like this, rather than getting to know his wife.
Margot said she didn’t care, but the drinking indicated otherwise.
Osment was married to one of the most amazing women on the planet but lived his life as if she didn’t even exist. Nine out of ten days, Jack forgot Osment existed, too. And when he did remember, all Jack wanted was a free pass to punch the future king in the face.
Because Margot definitely deserved better.
“I’m bored, too,” a female voice sighed into Jack’s ear, pulling him away from his dark thoughts. A glance at the empty seat next to the prince confirmed his suspicion that the fae adviser had just whispered in his ear.
Man, he hated faes.
Well … hate was a strong word, but he certainly wasn’t a fan of their unnatural ability to move undetected, whenever they were in the mood. They liked to put the propaganda out there that they were literally able to disappear from one spot and appear in the spot of their choosing in a blink, but Jack knew for a fact that they were human.
And humans couldn’t do that.
There had to be a trick to it. Once he learned it, Jack would happily never see another fae in his life. Nothing good happened when they showed up. Some ancient cultures thought death was on its way if a raven appeared, but Jack knew for sure that if a fae showed up somewhere, things were about to get colorful.
And if a lot of them showed up?
As far as the Royals were concerned, they were excellent spies who were well worth the price they asked. They were a bit like serial killers in that they wanted tokens of a moment, not money, as payment for their services.
Just one more bit of evidence that they were evil, as far as Jack was concerned.
But Prince Abed had chosen Tiki as one of his advisers, so Jack was stuck with this one for eight more hours … eight hours sharing space with an adult that had the attention span and impulse control of a toddler.
What had Prince Abed been thinking?
More than that, why had Tiki agreed?
Fae didn’t do anything they didn’t want to do, and Tiki definitely wasn’t having fun. So why was she sticking around?
Against his will, Jack was curious about that.
“Can’t be that bad,” he said. “You’re still here.”
Her reply was to flop down at his feet, arm melodramatically draped over her face. Her version of a Rococo dress was something more akin to what a steampunk Tinkerbelle might wear, and it covered as much as a tutu as she grumbled on the ground.
Jack directed his eyes back to the dance floor. One of them had to be decent.
“I’m waiting for the phoenix,” she pouted.
“Phoenix?” Jack said, resisting the urge to look back at the pouting puddle at his feet.
All of sudden, she was in his face. “You’ve seen it, right? Everyone says you have. What does it look like? How will I recognize it? I hear they smell like ash and moonbeams. Is that true?”
Per usual, Jack had no idea what the fae was talking about. “I can’t tell you. I’ve honestly never met one.”
The last phoenix had appeared when Jack was a child, and he had died long before Jack had been in a position to meet him. True to the mythology, they tended to burn bright, die hard, and somehow rise into something greater from their own ashes. They were rare—often entire generations passing without seeing one, although the past century had a noticeable uptick in frequency.
Still, Jack had heard no whispers of there being a new one.
Next to him, the fae let out a humph of annoyance. “That’s not what I heard.”
“Well, you heard wrong,” he said, keeping his eyes on the dance floor. Eye contact only encouraged faes—usually into mischief.
He’d take a hard pass on that.
“I never hear wrong. I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Because Prince Abed asked you to be.”
She shook her head. “I’m here because I won the pot to take the spot to be the first to meet the phoenix everyone’s been whispering about. But all I see here are boring Royals prancing around like eighteenth-century white people. No phoenix in sight.”
Jack shrugged. “I’m sorry. But as far as I know, there are no plans for a phoenix to make an appearance tonight. In any form.”
“Gah!” Tiki groaned, flopping back onto the floor. “You’re such a mood killer. Claire ever tell you that?”
Jack grew still, hating that the fae knew Claire’s name. No good could come of that.
“Claire never tells me that.”
“Well, love is blind,” she said with a sigh. “I’ll give you that.”
It was so tempting to toss back a retort, but the cardinal rule of dealing with a fae was to never start an argument you didn’t want them to win.
Because they would. Every time.
So instead of replying, Jack deflected back to the original topic of interest. “Who told you a phoenix would be here tonight?”
Jack froze in alarm. Malachi? “Wait—”
“Ooh! This will be fun,” she said, then was gone.
Jack blinked, confirming the fae had indeed disappeared from his side before glancing at her designated seat. There she was—prince to her right, General Zao to her left—whispering into the boy’s ear as the prince’s eyes searched out something in the crowd and found it.
The herald’s staff sounded against the marble floor three times, drawing Jack’s attention away from the exchange.
“His Majesty welcomes Augustus of the South,” the herald called out, as a six-foot-eight ebony-skinned goliath stepped to the base of the throne’s stairs and dropped to one knee in his faintly peach suit. Jack could have never pulled the color off, but Augustus looked more formidable somehow—even taking a knee.
On any other day, the man would be introduced as King Augustus. But, per tradition for the Day of Anemone, he’d left his title at the door.
“Rise, Augustus,” Prince Abed said, his hand gesture mirroring his words.
The ebony man rose to his full height, gesturing to a servant behind him. “I bring a puzzle to His Highness on his Day of Anemone.”
A puzzle? This was Jack’s wheelhouse.
It was show time.
“I do love puzzles, fair Augustus,” the boy said. “Please proceed.”
The servant stepped forward with the box.
“This puzzle box has been in my family for generations,” Augustus said with reverence. “It is said that only those who are taught may open it.”
Jack smiled, more than ready for the challenge. He’d never met a puzzle box he hadn’t solved. Quickly.
“I have placed something inside—”
“A knife,” Tiki said from her seat, sounding bored.
Augustus frowned at being interrupted. “I beg your pardon?”
All eyes moved to Tiki as she held up an ornate dagger. “A knife.” She wiggled the blade in her hand. “This knife. That’s what you put in there. It’s empty now.”
When Augustus eyed the knife incredulously from afar, the fae threw it at his face—the blade spiraling through the air with blurring speed. The king caught it with ease, opening up his hand and studying what he found there.
Then he looked at his servant. “Give me the chest.”
Disappointment swirled with confusion as Jack watched Augustus execute a few unseen moves that unlocked the box.
Sure enough, it was empty.
Everyone looked at Tiki.
“How…?” Augustus started to ask, then stopped himself and bowed to the prince. “I see His Highness has chosen keen advisers.”
Keen. That’s one way of saying it, Jack thought as he did his best not to glare Tiki’s direction. They were supposed to help the prince succeed, yes, but not to the point of insulting his guests.
There was something to be said for having an ounce of propriety.
Tiki could have at least pretended to let them solve it real-time. It might be selfish, but Jack couldn’t help feeling a little let down that he hadn’t even been able to examine the box. He loved new puzzles almost as much as he hated the fae. Apparently, combining those two things didn’t skew things in the direction of making a fae more tolerable.
For beings that chased fun, they sure knew how to kill it for everyone else.
If Tiki planned on doing this all night, then Jack might need to join Margot in downing a few glasses of wine, because this was going to be a long night.
“Thank you for your thoughtful challenge, Augustus,” Prince Abed said. “I do hope you enjoy my party.”
The African king tilted his head in respect. “It is a diverting reminder of an extravagant era, Your Grace. Well chosen.”
The boy and the man tilted their chins to each other before Augustus moved back to the main floor.
“Seriously,” Tiki said, suddenly at Jack’s side again. “So bored.”
It was going to be a long night.
In a lucky turn of events, no cardio was required for Claire to reach the top of the palace steps. The building had an elevator—operated entirely by pulley systems and manpower.
And, boy oh boy, did those men-in-black have some power.
When the elevator doors opened at the top, views of mountain ranges were replaced with ornate, arched ceilings lined with gold filigree. Classical music filled the open space, making it seem welcoming, rather than ominous.
Off to their right, light glowed out from a doorway that must have been thirty feet tall. Above the door, a juniper green banner hung with a silver diamond sewn into it.
Two men dressed in green suits intercepted them as she and Malachi moved into the space, the guards’ body language both blocking and greeting at the same time.
“My Lord,” they both said, bowing deeply to Malachi before straightening and offering Claire a more modest tip of their heads.
“Invitations, if you please,” said the guard closer to Malachi, holding out his white-gloved hand expectantly.
Malachi pulled a large envelope and handed it to the guard. The man took it, breaking its green, wax seal and reading the invitation before casting a wary glance at Claire and stepping to the side.
“May we take your cloaks?” the man closest to Claire asked, and Malachi answered for them with an elegant nod. The men made quick work of gathering their coats.
Malachi’s suit jacket caught her eye as the men draped the cloaks on hooks to the side of the elevator. It was different than what she’d seen on the jet. This one had large, pale flowers patterned against ivory tones. The floral theme should have looked girly on him.
Somehow pastels in the print highlighted the green in his eyes like a neon sign. That was a neat trick.
Part of Claire was really glad her heart was already spoken for because, wherever they were going, her escort had to be the resident heartbreaker. There was just no way around it. Women had to be falling at his feet—not her, obviously.
He totally wasn’t her type.
Claire’s type was a lot less terrifying, and a lot more Jack. But that didn’t mean she was blind to another man’s allure. And when it came to that, Claire’s feminine intuition told her more than one woman’s eyes would be tracking her, trying to figure out what their relationship was.
Nonexistent. That’s what it was. But that didn’t make Malachi any less meticulous, refined, effortless, fashionable, or handsome.
Jack was all those things, as well, but about six inches shorter with eyes that erred on the side of kind. Malachi came across as calculated, and Claire had no doubt there was truth in that advertising…reminding her that her presence served him somehow.
Her escort was a man with a plan. And she was part of that plan.
She couldn’t let herself forget that.
“The herald will announce you shortly,” the first guard said, interrupting her thoughts just in time to watch both men step to the side and salute.
Malachi smiled down at Claire. “Shall we?”
Time to get her head back into the game.
Claire bobbed her head in agreement, even as anxieties fired up in her mind.
Why had the guard given her that odd look after looking at the invitation? And, holy cow, now that she was walking into the main entry, their steps echoing off the walls, how did everything seem bigger?
Also, there seemed to be a lot of layers of security for this event … and it seemed an intentional choice that none of the bionic men in black had checked for invites. They’d just let everyone past and moved jets off the runway.
The security check came once all the men in black stood between guests and their parked j