I glance over at Izabel sitting unchanged next to me—maybe I didn’t give her enough credit. Nah, there’s still plenty she has yet to see.
What does this mean? Why am I not fuming beneath the surface? How can it be that I can sit here on this chair and watch these helpless girls—oh, and that one poor guy—be prodded and gawked at, treated like cattle at an auction, and not want to fly out of this chair and kill all of these fucking people? It’s not because I don’t care, or that I’m like these evil pieces of shit. Jesus—can a person be so desensitized to something that it no longer affects them at all?
I believed in myself enough to know that I could at least get through the mission without blowing our cover—I know I can pull that off no matter what Niklas thinks—but I didn’t expect for a second that I’d be this calm underneath.
But I haven’t seen everything yet, I’m sure.
No…I haven’t seen everything yet.
I’m going out of my fucking mind; can’t raise my head, can’t speak. This is extraordinarily boring; I forgot just how mind-numbing a role like this can be at times. I can’t believe I ever looked forward to it.
But I’m a professional; even more-so than Niklas and Izabel with their ridiculous bickering—they should just fuck and get it over with already—and I won’t break character, despite how badly I want to point out the real Francesca Moretti to Niklas and get this show on the road. Because I know who she is. I’ve known from the moment we walked into this place. And she’s as good at playing her role as I am—oh, she’s good all right.
Trevor Chamberlain buys the virgin for one-and-a-half million dollars. That’s a lot of money, and it would seem like Mr. Chamberlain would be the man of the hour, getting all of the attention from the Moretti family on the stage, but they appear more interested in me. It’s been over an hour and the showing is coming to a close; there’s nothing else to bid on, and I didn’t raise a paddle or a hand once. They want to know why, I’m sure. Because it was clear they made every effort to point out—subtly, of course, so no one but me knew what they were doing—the flaws of each girl who walked out on stage: the brown-haired German girl with a scar on her knee; another brown-haired girl from France with a strange birthmark left in-tact in the center of her back; there was a brown-haired American girl who had thin lips—all of these things were made aware to me so that I could bid on them, or pay to get a closer look, but I did neither.
“The Madam will see you now,” Miz Ghita says after descending the steps of the stage in front of me.
The fake Francesca and Emilio Moretti leave through the exit on the stage, taking the two servant girls with them. Valentina Moretti stays behind to say goodbye to the guests, flanked by servant girls of her own.
“Nothing you saw suited your needs?” Miz Ghita inquires; her voice is laced with tamed censure.
With my briefcase in-hand, I walk alongside her down another brightly lit hallway; Izabel and Nora follow behind us.
“The girls were stunning,” I say. “But none of them had what I was looking for, unfortunately.”
“And what exactly is it that you’re looking for, Mr. Augustin?”
I glance over at her. “I’ll talk about that with the Madam.”
Miz Ghita’s aging face sours, but she doesn’t respond.
In under a minute later, we’re entering an enormous room that looks like three offices in one. Books line the tall walls from floor to ceiling, surrounding a massive desk with an arc-shaped window situated behind it. A matching leather sofa and loveseat and oversized chair is placed strategically out ahead of the desk; expensive Italian rugs cover the marble floor underneath the furniture, giving some red and brown and blue color to the otherwise blinding white floors.
“Have a seat.” Miz Ghita gestures toward the furniture.
I sit in the oversized chair; Izabel sits next to me; Nora on the floor at my feet with my briefcase.
Miz Ghita leaves the room.
Knowing there are cameras and equipment watching and recording our every move and sound, I use the time alone to make our act even more believable. I reach down and grab a fistful of Nora’s hair in my hand, jerking her head back forcefully on her neck—it’s the first time since her little ‘accident’ in the great hall that Niklas Augustin has really had the opportunity to scold her in private for what she did.
“You’ve embarrassed me, Aya,” I tell her, literally breathing down her neck. “And I don’t like to be embarrassed.” I pull on her hair harder; her brown eyes look up at me with regret and apology—fake, but believable. I grind my jaw and lean in closer, my mouth mere inches from hers. “If I didn’t have important business with these people, I’d ask to use one of their rooms and I’d take the fucking time to punish you here. But when we get back to the hotel—don’t look away from my eyes, girl”—I wrench her hair so hard the corners of her eyes stretch—“when we get back to the hotel, you’re to remove your clothes immediately, stand in the room and wait for me to get out of the shower. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Master,” comes her small voice.
I hear people entering the room from behind me, but I hold onto Nora’s hair a moment longer, glaring into her eyes, not thinking about any of this shit with Moretti or Olivia Bram, but instead about that night Nora sat across the table from me, when I relived the worst moment of my life: Claire’s death. I’ve hated this bitch since that night. I didn’t hate her before, when she clocked me in the face in the auditorium; I didn’t even hate her when I first sat down at the table with her when it was my turn to confess—honestly, the bitch gave me one helluva hard-on. She had the whole fucking show and quite frankly I was impressed with her. But then she had to succeed in getting under my skin; she had to go and break the seal on my emotions—she made me crack; she made me want to crack, and that pisses me off almost more than anything. The only thing worse is that she altered my relationship with my brother; she pulled the veil from my goddamn eyes and changed everything—and for that I’ll never forgive her. I would’ve rather gone on living the lie, believing that Victor had never and would never betray me. Because he’s the only family I got, the only family I’ve ever had since my mother was murdered.
And now I have no one; no one I can trust.
And Nora will pay for what she did. One way or another she’ll pay.
Releasing her hair harshly, Nora’s head sways on her neck for a brief second before she gains control of it, and then she looks at the floor.
I stand to properly acknowledge ‘Francesca’ entering the room, as always with her escorts, Emilio, and two of her favorite servant girls. I glance at the entrance, waiting for Valentina to come walking in behind them, but am surprised to see another one of the decoys, instead. Miz Ghita enters afterward, closing the double doors behind her. The nameless decoy sits down on the loveseat, says nothing, and no one feels any need to introduce her. She looks at me, a faint but noticeable smile at her lips. She crosses her long legs, straightens her back and drapes her dainty hands over the top of her knee.
I offer her a slow nod, in which she returns, and then I look away.
Emilio takes a seat on the sofa directly across from me; his cold dark gaze never falters; he rests his back comfortably against the sofa, props his right leg on his left knee at the ankle, revealing black dress socks between the hem of his pants and the shiny black of his dress shoes. His fingers interlock casually over his stomach.
I turn to the fake Francesca as she’s making her way around the desk.
“I prefer to do business only with you,” I tell her.
“We’re sure you do,” Emilio says icily, and with an expression to match, “but the Madam isn’t going to be left alone in a room with you, Mr. Augustin.” He gestures a hand, palm up, at the fake Francesca. “There she is—take it or leave it.”
I lick the dryness from my lips slowly; I may have to change things up a bit, reveal parts of Mr. Augustin in front of these people that I’ve been reserving for Francesca, just to get my time alone with her.
The fake Francesca takes a seat in the leather rolling chair behind the desk.
“I can assure you,” she says, “that my brother will not interfere in our business transaction.” She looks over at Emilio and adds without taking her eyes off him, “If he does, I’ll deal with him personally.” She smiles at me and says, “He does have a tendency to be a bastard; hasn’t learned yet when it’s best not to be himself.”
Wow, you’re really treading dangerous waters playing your role, Whoever You Are—Emilio seethes beneath the surface; his eyes wide, his hard-pressed mouth tightening, his interlocked fingers practically turning purple on his lap. And I can’t tell if the fake Francesca is enjoying the opportunity to ruffle Emilio’s feathers, or if she’s worried about what he might do to her later to get her back, because she seems to be playing her role as flawlessly now as any one of us.
I smile faintly at Emilio, just for good measure, and of course he wants to kill me for it.