Vinemont turned me around so I was forced to stare up into his unmasked face. “Did he hurt you?”

“Did he hurt me? Do you even hear yourself?”

Oakman strolled into the room. “Come on. Can’t wait forever. The natives are getting restless for her walk and the rest of the festivities.”

“Just another minute, Cal, if you don’t mind.” Vinemont didn’t even turn to look at the host.

“That’s all you’ll get.” The gameshow host tone drained from Cal’s voice like water through a sieve. “Tradition can’t be broken.”

He shut the door behind him as he left.

“You can’t run, Stella. I’ll catch you. They’ll catch you.”

“The only one who caught me was Lucius.”

“And you were lucky this time. You won’t be so lucky again. Trust me.”

This was such a mindfuck. He acted like he cared one way or another what happened, but I knew all he cared about was winning this twisted competition. He wasn’t fooling me. No one was. Fuck him. Fuck all of them. I stepped away from him and walked to the door.

“Where are you going?”

“To do my walk of shame. Are you going to help me out of this dress or what?”

I’d never seen shock on his face. If he weren’t a monster, it would have been almost cute. He followed me back into the ballroom, new debauches going on all around as the ballgoers got their second wind. I didn’t see the other Acquisitions.

Once lined up at the walkway, I reached behind me to unhook my dress. Then I realized I had no idea how Enid had put the thing on me.

Vinemont was at my back then, his fingers pulling the fabric together and unhooking the closures that must have held it together along the center seam. He moved his hands up to my shoulders and inhaled deeply before slipping his fingers beneath the lace straps and letting the dress fall to the floor in a feathery heap.

Cold air rushed over my body, and the nearest revelers stopped what they were doing to watch me.

Vinemont moved his hands down my sides, feeling my curves before his hands settled at my hips. His breath was warm against my shoulder. His familiar scent was oddly comforting.

I took one step, and then another. I kept my head high as I walked. I fixed my gaze far across the room on one of the particularly beautiful chandeliers. Crystal drops hung from it, multi-faceted and shimmering despite the mass of human ugliness beneath it. It was untouched by the hideous inhabitants of the room. Maybe I could be, too.

I slapped away hands and fingers, refusing to let them degrade me any more than they already had. I ignored catcalls and whistles. When I reached the end, I turned and repeated my travel, glaring at Oakman as defiantly as I could. He stared back intently before unzipping his fly and motioning for one of the women below to “assist” him.

I dropped my attention and caught Vinemont staring at me, fire in his eyes like never before. He didn’t look down my body, just held my gaze as I walked, as if he were pulling me toward him with some strange gravity. I reached him and turned, making the circuit one more time under the watchful eyes and the grasping hands.

I reached the far end where a wrinkled man with a protruding erection waited for me.

“Ms. Rousseau, so pleased to see you again.” He grinned, a red mask obscuring his eyes, while his date for the night—a handsome man of no more than twenty—stood close behind him.

I knew his voice. My stomach flipped and soured. “Judge Montagnet?”

The judge’s date reached around and began stroking Montagnet’s cock, though the set of the young man’s mouth was less excited and more apathetic.

“Well, I must get back,” Montagnet said. “I just wanted to congratulate you. Keep up the good work, lovely girl, and I certainly hope the Vinemonts prevail this year. Don’t worry. I’ll keep an eye on your father for you.” He disentangled himself from the younger man’s grip and knelt down on all fours on a nearby divan. I turned my head away before I saw anything more.

The judge’s threat was a strangling vine around my heart, choking out any love or warmth, leaving only cold fear. I was foolish, so foolish for running. Never again. I was captured, bound by the invisible vise of these people, their power. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to turn. I scanned the crowd, wishing I could burn the chateau down on their heads.

One of the servants motioned toward me with the prod. I took a deep breath and finished my walk. I kept my eyes up, trying to distance myself from the horror of the scene. I refused to give in to the helpless feeling of being nude and on display for the faceless horde. They thrashed around me like damned souls in hell, their breaths hot and their hands clawing at me. I fought them off and hurried my pace.