There’s an odd tickle at the back of my neck and I turn, just in time to watch a figure sneak in the entrance behind us, but he’s gone before I can get a good look. Was he outside in the driveway the whole time? He couldn’t have arrived so quickly without us noticing.
“Come on,” Gina prompts, guiding me farther into the house. God, it’s incredible. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, exotic rugs that stretch across entire rooms, a domed, stained-glass ceiling that filters the moonlight and casts the room in dark, moody colors. “The bidding is going to start soon.”
“Oh.” My feet skid to a stop. “Is there somewhere I can sit that’s out of the way? Or—”
“Gentlemen! Please take your seats. Get comfortable.” The energy in the room changes immediately when a tall, fair-haired man in his sixties begins to speak. Even in the dark atmosphere, his black eyes are coldly brilliant. Evil. They send a chill down my spine. “And ladies…” His voice is significantly harder now. “You know the drill. Line up and look your best.”
Darlene shoos me away. “Go sit in the foyer—”
“No, no,” says the man with the cold eyes, bringing everyone to a standstill. “She stays.”
“Oh, no,” I breathe. “I’m not participating.”
He chuckles. “You just plan to watch, do you? Plenty of our members come to…observe. But I’m afraid that will cost you a hefty membership fee. Are you prepared to pay tonight?”
Something tells me the twenty dollars in my bank account isn’t going to cover it.
I shake my head.
“Then line up,” he says, smoothly, but there’s impatience twisting his mouth. “We’ve already got several members very interested in bidding on you.”
Again I start to protest, but Gina is suddenly whispering in my ear. “That is Winston freaking Creed, Maisy. He’s a very dangerous man, okay? You don’t argue with him. I’m sorry…I had no idea he would fixate on you like this—”
“Enough,” Winston snaps. “What is the issue? She could do a lot worse than the fine gentlemen in this room. Surely she isn’t a virgin or something.”
Having my sexual experience talked about so casually in front of a room of strangers is horrifying. Fire ants crawl up my neck. I beg for the power of invisibility and try to hide behind Gina. But apparently that is the exact wrong way to handle the question, because it sparks an alarming interest among the dozen or so men. They make low sounds in their seats, shifting to get a better look at me.
Even Winston seems caught off guard, his light eyebrows lifting to his hairline.
“Oh, she is a virgin.” He smiles wickedly. “Well. She’s definitely not leaving now.”
It’s almost eleven o’clock when my phone rings. I’m sitting in my bathtub with a cigar in my mouth, staring into the fireplace, finding it impossible to get my mind off…the girl.
Always the girl.
This obsession should have run its course by now. I’ve spent no time in her presence. She picked up her mother once and I glimpsed her through the upstairs window, the afternoon light turning her into a glowing sunbeam in her yellow dress, the line of her neck elegant, her voice a gentle lilt that haunts me. Somehow one glance was all it took for the infatuation to take hold. For me to rearrange finances and lose my ability to focus. Concentrate.
Yes, I might know my interest in the girl is ridiculous, but I can’t help but be annoyed at the interruption when I’m thinking of her. I almost ignore the call. If it wasn’t for the fact that I seldom receive them at this hour, I might have. But I sit up in the tub and glance over at the screen and my senses go on alert.
Kirk. The private investigator. If he’s calling me, there’s a good reason.
Quickly, I wipe my hand on the closest towel and hit the speakerphone button. “Yes?” I bark around my cigar. “What is it?”
“Mr. Lincoln, we have a situation that is developing rapidly.”
Thanks to his harried tone, I’m already out of the tub, steaming bathwater pouring down my body onto the marble floor, the phone poised near my mouth. “A situation? With her? What the fuck does that mean?”
“She normally cleans on Saturday nights, but she went out with two friends instead. Girls from her neighborhood.” His audible swallow makes me nervous—and I don’t like to be nervous. I spend a lot of money to make sure I am always in control and having it taken away from me is unacceptable. “I would have called you sooner, sir, but I…I couldn’t believe she would come here. I thought they were passing through the area to get to the next town…”
“Where is she?”
“The Creed Estate, sir. The guests are…bidding on her.”
The blood in my veins turns to ice, denial digging its claws into my stomach.