“She is one of Madam Francesca’s favorites,” Miz Ghita says, and instantly I sense a change in Izabel.
Maybe it was just instinct that I look at her in that moment, knowing her history with Javier Ruiz, how she was his favorite—I don’t know, but I noticed when her jaw tightened. It was only a split second, but I saw it; thankfully no one else did. Izabel’s soft, smiling, obedient face never falters, and she raises her own glass of wine and puts it to her lips.
“I understand about favorites all too well, I admit,” I say to Miz Ghita, glancing at Izabel with hidden meaning that Miz Ghita catches onto right away.
She looks briefly at Izabel, too, and then nods at me, understanding.
“I wonder what flaw this one has then,” she says, expecting me to answer.
“Naomi’s flaw is not so visible, but I can assure you she has one,” I say, and leave it at that.
Miz Ghita looks Izabel over with the calculated sweep of hard beady eyes—I just hope she doesn’t ask me to prove it, because unlike my brother, I haven’t seen any other part of Izabel’s body to know if there’s anything wrong with it. Maybe I should remedy that later when we go back to the hotel, make Izzy squirm a little, make her regret ever wanting to be a part of this mission—that’ll teach her stubborn ass.
But Miz Ghita is relentless.
“I’m very curious to know what it is,” she says, looking Izabel over once more before her vulture eyes, full of expectation, fall on me—it’s such a petty thing, but for some reason she wants to know and she wants to know now. And I can’t refuse her. It would look suspicious to keep it from her because it’s so petty; and after I just paraded Nora’s missing finger, and admitted to Miz Ghita that I look for flaws in my girls, it would seem as though I’m proud of them, and not to show off the flaw of my ‘favorite’ girl, would seem suspicious. Fuck—what do I say?
“May I show her?” Izabel speaks up, snapping me out of my sudden panicked mind.
I look at Izabel, and she’s looking back at me, sweet-tempered, confident, fearless—more in control of this situation than I clearly am.
Finally I nod and answer, “Yes, Naomi, show Madam Ghita your flaw,” having no idea what it is, and hoping like hell I’m not exhibiting that in my face.
Izabel hands her wine glass to Nora, turns her back to me and says, “If you would unzip me?”
Reluctant for only a moment, I fit my thumb and index finger around the zipper tab and slide it down the center of her back; smooth, tanned skin appears, replacing the white lace fabric of her dress. She’s wearing no bra, no panties—you’ve got to be fucking kidding me; Izzy what are you doing?
Izabel steps out of her dress and turns around to face us, standing stark naked in the middle of the room for all of forty or fifty people to see, and every single pair of eyes, minus the eyes of the servants, turn in attention.
Goddamn she’s beautiful. More stunning than the naked statue of Venus of Arles on our way in, with a waist and hips like an hourglass, average-sized breasts but full and perfect—I can see what my brother sees in her now, I guess. Still doesn’t make Izzy any less of a mouthy bitch though.
Izabel smooths her fingertips over the gunshot scar on her stomach and then meets my eyes before turning her attention to Miz Ghita—my heart sinks, and I swallow a thick dose of guilt and regret because I’m the one who gave her that scar.
“May I explain to Madam Ghita how I came to be scarred?” Izabel asks me in a gentle voice, though hidden within it is a quiet conflict between the two of us: You shot me and you’re a bastard, Niklas. I know, and I’m sorry, Sarai; I’ll always be sorry and I’ll always be a bastard.
Miz Ghita looks right at me, waiting.
“Yes, Naomi,” I say quickly. “Tell her how you got that scar.”
Izabel steps back into her dress and pulls it up, sliding her arms into the thin strap sleeves—everyone watches. “I was shot,” she says, turning her back to me so I can zip her up, “in Los Angeles, California, by a very sick man.” Only I can hear the distaste in her voice, and only I can feel the sting.
Once the zipper is up, I drop my hands from her and she turns back around.
“I see,” says Miz Ghita, looking only at Izabel, wanting to know more. “And what happened to this sick man? Was he…dealt with?”
Without meeting my eyes, Izabel answers, “No, Madam, he is still running free out there somewhere as far as I know. But…I don’t fear him so much anymore”—(I feel her eyes on me, but I don’t look back at her)—“because I have Niklas to protect me.”
Miz Ghita looks between us curiously.
“I suppose it was a good thing,” she tells Izabel, but is looking only at me, “that Mr. Augustin found you.”
I say nothing, and neither does Izabel.
The three of us—minus Nora—turn our heads in attention as a group of women and men emerge from an arched entrance to our left.
Three. Five. Six. Eight. Nine women who resemble one another so closely that they look like blood sisters, walk out among a smaller group of men in suits; their escorts for the evening, I’m guessing.
The group spreads out, six of them with a man on their arm, and they begin to mingle with the guests. Some wear skimpy cocktail dresses; jewelry decorates their wrists and fingers; they all look very much alike, but one woman in particular stands out from the others. There’s something about her that sets her apart from the rest: her chin raised higher, the gleam in her eyes more dramatic, even the way her escort walks alongside her—dark hair, sharp brown eyes—he appears proud, as if he has been given the most important assignment of his career. He keeps his head high when he walks with her on his arm, never looking anyone in the eyes, not because he’s a slave, but because he’s too pompous to spare the effort.
Miz Ghita makes her way over to the two, the ends of her black dress swishing about her legs, her flashy jewelry jangling.
“Not yet,” I tell Izabel without looking at her, pushing the words through my teeth like a ventriloquist. I tighten my arm around hers, stopping her.
You’re too eager, Izzy, just be patient, I want to say but don’t. I can’t—Miz Ghita is looking in our direction.
I nod at her from across the twenty-five foot space, and the woman with the flaunting male escort locks eyes with me briefly, just long enough to get my attention.
The three converse; first about us, I’m sure, and then the same amount of discreet attention is given to a few other guests standing about the room. I didn’t expect to be the only man in question here tonight, and I’m glad for that; not all of the suspicion will be on me.
Finally Miz Ghita, and the proudest woman among the nine with her even prouder escort, make their way over to us.
“Madam Francesca Moretti,” Miz Ghita introduces us, “meet Mr. Niklas Augustin. Mr. Augustin, this is Madam Francesca.”
‘Francesca’ looks at me with a powerful, self-important grace. She presents me her hand at the same moment I reach for it, and I bow slightly and graze the top of it with my lips.
“I appreciate the invitation to be here this evening, Miz Moretti,” I tell her, addressing her properly. “And on such short notice.”
“It is my pleasure,” Francesca, who I know is not the real Francesca, says and then adds, “Madam Ghita tells me that you are looking for something in particular, that you have special needs?” She tilts her head gently to one side, inquiringly.
I nod. “Yes,” I say, “but I would prefer to speak about it in private.” I glance around the room briefly and add, “When time permits, of course.”
“Of course,” she responds.
Miz Ghita cuts in, “After the Madam visits with the other guests, and after the showing, she will accommodate you the private meeting you paid for. Why don’t you introduce her to your companion.”
A small smile manipulates one corner of my mouth—they may be fooling every other guest in this mansion, but I’m not every other guest. They’re just oblivious men—and a few women—who are here for sex, and none of them have any clue about this woman being a decoy for the real madam. They probably couldn’t give a shit less anyway, because unlike me, they’re not technically here for Francesca Moretti.
I look to Izabel, and then back at the decoy.
“This is my girl, Naomi,” I answer, and Izabel bows her head slightly, offering the decoy a smile. “Kind of like your left-handed servant girl, Naomi is my favorite; no longer a slave, however. What about your favorites draws you to choose them?” It’s simple conversation, really, but an unanticipated enough question that only the real Francesca would be able to answer without hesitation.
The decoy’s eyes shift to look at Miz Ghita. She appears puzzled, as if she doesn’t know what to say, but this time it’s the male escort who cuts in, which surprises me.
“I am Emilio Moretti,” he introduces himself proudly in a thick Italian accent. “Francesca’s brother. What business did you say you were in, Mister…Augustin is it?” He cocks his head to one side, scrutinizing me under hard, dark eyebrows.