“You have got to be kidding me.” Santiago sets his drink down and stalks to where his little sister has just entered the Baroque room at the IVI compound. Well, she’s not so little anymore. Twenty-four today in fact. And from the way she looks like she’s been poured into that dress, she wants to make sure everyone knows it.
A waiter pauses for me to take my scotch off his tray as I watch the scene unfold. I lean against the wall and sip, catching Mercedes’s eye for all of a split second before Santiago takes her by the arm and walks her away from the entourage of young men who appeared out of nowhere the instant she set foot in the room. I can hear the two of them argue before they even stop a few feet from me.
“That is not the dress I approved,” Santiago tells her, and I understand.
“I got a spot on that one and had to change at the last minute.”
She shrugs a shoulder and bites her lower lip, her gaze flitting to me over her brother’s shoulder. I raise an eyebrow.
“I was having a snack. I didn’t want all the champagne to go to my head.”
“You were having a snack? Before your party where you chose all your favorite foods to be served? I wasn’t born yesterday, little sister.”
“The way you’re talking to me, Santi, you’d think I planned it.”
I can’t help my chuckle at that.
“You’re going to go home and change. Now.”
Mercedes resists as he tries to drag her toward the exit. “It’s my party! I’m not leaving—”
“You should have thought of that before pulling this stunt. Christ, Mercedes, I can see the outline of…” he trails off, looking away, gritting his jaw.
I approach. “Happy Birthday, Mercedes.”
She looks up at me, panic in her eyes. A plea for help. “Thank you,” she says and tries to tug free of her brother.
“Santiago,” I say quietly to him. “You’re drawing attention.”
“It’s her dress drawing the attention!”
“No.” I gesture to his hand wrapped tightly around her arm.
“I’m twenty-four, Santi. I think I can choose what I wear to my own party.”
“I thought you said it was a last-minute decision after you made a mess of your other dress.”
Mercedes opens her mouth, closes it and turns perfectly winged dark eyes to me for help.
I look her over, see how her hair lies in thick, black waves across one shoulder as if to carry the eye to the swell of her breasts which are lifted and presented on a shelf of gathered crimson silk. Two diamond-studded straps hold the dress precariously in place. The silk hugs her tiny waist and curves around her hips to drop to the floor. A high slit shows off slender but well-toned thighs and five-inch heels.
“This is what I mean,” Santiago says, giving me a look. “Even Judge can’t seem to drag his gaze away.”
I clear my throat. “You look beautiful, Mercedes,” I say, aware how my heartrate has accelerated at my own lingering perusal.
She is your best friend’s little sister. You have watched her grow up literally from birth. She is off limits.
“Thank you, Judge,” she says coolly as Santiago releases her arm. She rubs it. “Maybe you can talk some sense into my brother. Remind him I’m an adult and isn’t this party to secure me a husband anyway?”
As soon as she says it, something dark wakes inside me. Like a slumbering beast disturbed, lifting its heavy head, a low growl warning of its presence. Do they hear it, I wonder, before I can clear my throat to mask the sound?
“You won’t secure a husband looking like that,” Santiago says. “You’ll give men the wrong impression.”
“What’s wrong with it? It was made by a Society approved designer. It’s elegant and my color and made just for me so no one will be wearing the same dress. How embarrassing would that be?” She looks over Santiago’s shoulder and I follow her gaze to her friends, a group of women whose names I don’t know and don’t care to know. “Vivien is going to be beside herself with jealousy,” she says with a very satisfied grin and wave. She quickly looks back to her brother. “And besides, if some man gets the wrong idea, that’s on him, not me. I can’t be responsible for how men behave.”
“Mercedes,” Santiago groans.
“Come on, Santi,” she says more sweetly. “Don’t be mad. Please? It’s my birthday.”
“Judge?” Santiago turns to me, already softening to his sister.
“She is twenty-four and as intelligent as she is beautiful. She’s also right. How the male population behaves is not her responsibility. Besides, I have no doubt it’s the boys who will need rescuing should anything untoward transpire, not Mercedes.”
Mercedes watches me and if I didn’t know better, I’d think she was hanging on my every word. I make sure to break eye contact first. I don’t want her to get the wrong idea.
“Thank you, Judge,” she says then turns to her brother. “Santi?”
“Go. But I warn you, anything inappropriate, and you’re going home. I don’t care if it’s your birthday party.”
She smiles her most charming smile and gives her brother a hug and a peck on the cheek which have him stiffen awkwardly. Then she’s off to her circle of friends who, even from here, I can see aren’t true friends. I wonder if she's aware of this.
“She is more vulnerable than she lets on,” Santiago says. “With all that’s happened.”
“I can see that.”
He turns to me, gaze intent. “Can you?”
“She’ll be fine, Santiago. I meant what I said. She can handle herself.”
He smiles proudly, both of us shifting our gazes to his sister who has a group of about a dozen men surrounding her once again.
I feel his eyes on me as I move across the room to join my friends. Friends, being a loose term. Vivien, Dulce, and Giordana are more like frenemies. The Society approved women I’m allowed to spend time with because outwardly, we look like we belong together.
We’re all upper echelon Society princesses. We come from money. We have influence. And we fill our days doing charitable work for the Society and pretending it satisfies us, while really, we’re all just biding our time until we get married. Preferably to a Sovereign Son. In my case, I know Santi won’t approve anything less.
The De La Rosa family name has taken too many blows already. It’s up to me to represent my family dynasty in a way befitting of a Society daughter. My husband will need to be rich. Powerful. Influential, as well. And ultimately, he’ll have control over my life and everything I do. An annoying little detail I try to forget as I sip from my first glass of champagne.
“God, he is delicious.” Vivien practically groans into her glass as her eyes move over my shoulder. “He’s totally checking me out right now.”
I resist the urge to roll my eyes and break her heart by telling her Lawson Montgomery, aka Judge, aka my brother’s domineering best friend, doesn’t even know she exists. His eyes are on me. They’re always on me. It’s a secret game we like to play. He falls into his role of the protector, the man looking out for me, while I act like the spoiled little brat he expects me to be.
Maybe it’s because I like his attention. Maybe it’s because I’ve never felt the physical caress of a pair of eyes until I felt his on me. And yet, we act like we hate each other. As if we can hardly stand to be around one another for longer than a few minutes. Because if there’s one thing I know from overhearing his conversations with Santi over the years, Judge has no intentions of marrying. Which means, as far as he’s concerned, I’m off limits. He can’t touch me without destroying my virtue. And I can’t let him without a ring on my finger.
A deep sigh falls from my lips, souring my mood as Vivien continues to eye-fuck the man across the room.
“Get me an introduction.” She looks at me, pleading.
“You’ve already had an introduction.” My teeth clink against my glass, annoyance bubbling in my chest.
“Come on,” she hisses. “Don’t be a bitch. He wants to talk to me. I can tell.”
I offer her a sweet smile. “Trust me. If he wanted to talk to you, he would. Judge doesn’t play coy.”
At this she stiffens, her eyes flashing with indignation. “That sounds a little like jealousy, Mercedes.”
“Oh please.” I set my empty glass on a passing waiter’s tray. “You’re the one that’s obsessed with him. I’ve known him my entire life. If I wanted him, I would have him.”
“Really?” Her lip curls into a sneer. “From what I hear, he’s not so easy to catch. He’s been known to spend time at the Cat House, but I’ve never seen him court a woman publicly.”
Vivien’s shot hits me where it’s intended. I don’t like being a jealous little monster, but sometimes, I can’t help it. It isn’t even rational. But the thought of Judge fucking random women at the Cat House crawls under my skin and eats at me.
It’s about this time I decide two can play this game. I’ll show Vivien and everyone else here tonight, including Judge, that I have plenty of willing suitors.
I grab a crab cake from one of the waiters and pop it into my mouth, scanning the crowd, looking for someone I can manipulate with an easy smile.
“Are you sure you should be eating that?” Vivien’s appraising eyes move over me. “You might want to cut back.”
“You think so?” I cut my eyes to her, my words laced with vinegar.
I’ve never been in better shape, and she knows it. This is her last desperate attempt to knock me off my game tonight.
“Just a suggestion.” She shrugs a shoulder.
“Well, don’t you worry about me, Vivien.” I savor the last of my appetizer as my eyes laser in on a Sovereign Son. “I’ll let you know if I have any problems finding a man to entertain me tonight.”
I know what it took for Santiago to arrange this party for his sister. I know the effort it costs him to leave De La Rosa Manor. To have the eyes of The Society on him, speculating behind his back, wondering at the reclusive man he has become, a sort of phantom of the opera with his half-skull tattooed face and all his rage.
I pity the woman who will one day bear the brunt of his punishment. I know who she is. He’s just waiting. Biding his time. Making his plans. It’s coming, though. The reckoning of the Moreno family.
So, when Santiago tolerates as much as he is capable of tolerating and asks me to bring his sister home when she’s ready, I agree, and he takes his leave.
I keep a close eye on her throughout the evening, noting her dance partners. Counting the glasses of champagne she drinks. Making sure she is served seltzer after her third. No one will notice the switch but her and the instant she takes a sip from her fourth glass, I have to subdue a chuckle when she almost spits it out in her friend Vivien’s face.
She searches the room and catches my gaze.
I raise my drink to her.
She gives me a sneer. Subtly lifts her middle finger at me. She’s charming like that.
The cake is rolled into the ballroom to much fanfare and I walk out to the courtyard to get some fresh air. It’s a clear night, the sky like black velvet dotted with diamond stars. Pushing a hand into my pocket I stand in a corner and watch people drift in and out of the party, most of them having drank too much. When I’m finished with my drink, I set it aside and take the long way back to the Baroque room, checking the time on my watch. The party is almost over. I’m glad for it.
The corridor I walk down is dark, the rooms closed off for the night. The only people I pass are couples making out where they don’t think they’ll be seen. Don’t they know there is always someone watching? Especially here.
I have almost reached the back entrance of the Baroque room when I see the door to the Red Room is ajar. The Red Room, named for its décor, is used for smaller cocktail parties. Everything from carpet to furnishings to the ceiling draped with silk is red. I place my hand on the doorknob to pull the door closed. But just before I do, I hear something. A woman’s voice. A man’s.
Hers I recognize. His is harder to place.
I open the door farther until I see the couple in the corner. He has his back to me and is blocking her view of me. I slip quietly inside and watch, that beast of earlier alert again, making that rattling sound inside my chest.
“You’re so fucking beautiful. The most beautiful woman in that room,” he says like an inexperienced buffoon as he leans down to kiss the curve of her shoulder. He stumbles on one foot, and I realize he’s drunk.
I clear my throat and he startles, spinning as if a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Which he is.
“Sir. Mr. Montgomery,” he stutters.
I raise my eyebrows. He’s maybe five years younger than me. A Sovereign Son. But an idiot all the same.
“David.” I meet Mercedes’s eyes. “Mercedes.”
She leans her weight against the wall and folds her arms across her chest, annoyed.
“I was just giving Ms. De La Rosa her gift,” David says.
“And what was the gift? A kiss?”
“Christ Judge,” Mercedes interrupts. “It was a pair of earrings. He was helping me put them on.”
“In the dark?”
David clears his throat. “Perhaps I should go.”
“Perhaps you should.”
Mercedes exhales as the boy takes his leave. I wait until he’s gone to turn back to her. She pushes off the wall to walk away, but I step in front of her blocking her path.
She’s tall, five-feet-ten-inches barefoot but even in her heels, the top of her head barely comes to my chin, and she has to crane her neck to drag her gaze up to mine.
“What?” she snaps.
“Did you enjoy that? Because you looked bored.”
“How long were you watching?”
“Long enough to see the boy’s attempt at seduction fail miserably.”
Her cheeks flush. She’s embarrassed. She shifts her gaze to the side, and I see the woman beneath the mask, the one even her brother knows is in there, buried deep.
“He was drunk in case you failed to notice.”
“Lucky him since you cut off my drink.”
“And it’s a good thing I did. I convinced your brother to let you stay given the dress.”
She sighs. “What happened to me not being responsible for how men react?”
“Oh, you’re not, but you need to be smart and not put yourself into situations where you might get hurt.”
“He wasn’t going to hurt me.”
“He was drunk.”
“And I’m stone-cold sober.”
“Even so, he can overpower you.”
“He wasn’t going to overpower me. You sound just like Santi.”
“Besides, you’re my responsibility tonight.”
She rolls her eyes. “Excuse me, Judge. I’m going back to my party.” She tries to sidestep me, but I set a hand against the wall to block her.
“Don’t do that.”
Her gaze moves slowly over my arm, to my chest, up to my face. I see the pulse at her throat jump in double time.
“Roll your eyes at me.”
She lowers her lashes, and I can’t help my glance to the swell of her breasts. But when I look up, I realize she has caught me looking.
She licks her lips and I remind myself who she is.
“You need a man, little monster. Not a boy.”
His low spoken words are still vibrating through my head when he helps me into the back of his Rolls Royce. Raul, his driver, shuts the door after Judge gets in beside me. He’s at least a good foot away, but his presence seems to suck all the oxygen from the space. I can smell his cologne, the warm spicy scent unique to him. And almost against my will, my eyes drift to the pulsing beat in his neck. That gorgeous column of skin is masculine and alluring in a strange way. My fingers itch to touch it. To feel the warmth there, just to see if he’s affected by me too.
“You’re staring,” Judge murmurs, his lip tipped in amusement.
“I was just trying to figure out if you’re actually human,” I remark dryly, tearing my gaze to the window.
“I imagine it must be difficult for you to comprehend,” he says.
“What?” I turn back to him, arching a brow.
“When a man doesn’t cow to you like all the others.”
“Oh please. Isn’t that what all Sovereign Sons think? You rule the world, after all.”
“I’d rule you with a firm hand because that’s what you need, Mercedes.”
His words feel like a warning and a threat, and I can’t help my audible swallow in response. I get the impression he’s always trying to warn me away. And yet his words hold weight because he is to become my guardian should anything ever happen to my brother. He would be tasked with the responsibility of keeping me in line. I can’t help wondering how exactly he would do it if he were ever given a chance. But my pride won’t allow me to give him any indication that he affects me either way.
“Lucky for me you’ll have to save that firm hand for the unfortunate souls who entertain you at the Cat House.”
There’s a lingering silence after the inappropriate words leave my lips where his eyes catch mine, and it feels like I’m catching fire. Heat blazes from the dark depths of his soul, and it penetrates me in a way that feels discomforting. Like he’s unraveling me from the inside out, extracting all my secrets, my wants, my insecurities. Judge has a way of doing that. I suppose he makes for a terrifying presence for anyone who has to face him in the courtroom.
“Does that bother you?” His smooth voice slides over me like silk.
“Why would it bother me?” I answer with a cold laugh.
His gaze dips to my lips, and my heart slams against my chest. Then, to my horror, my own lips part, as if in invitation to something I don’t understand. This thing between us feels different tonight. More dangerous. Like we’re toeing the line we know we can’t cross. We’re flirting with danger, and if Santi were to find out Judge spoke to me this way, he’d probably try to chop off his hands. That knowledge hangs heavy between us, and yet it doesn’t stop him from reaching out to touch my chin, tipping it up so I’m forced to endure his gaze that feels like a visceral penetration between my thighs.
He's never touched me this way before. Never. And the brush of his fingers, his skin on my skin, sends sparks shooting through me. My heartbeat is skittering in my chest, my breath coming weird and too fast. Judge sees it. He sees every goddamned thing. And he likes it. I can tell by the way his eyes flare and then melt into liquid flames.
For a brief moment, I’m wondering how far he’ll take it. Would he kiss me? Would he… do more? And why do I feel like I want him to? God, this man is an arrogant asshole. I know this, but I seem to have forgotten it. Judge, however, hasn’t, and that becomes obvious when he releases me, a cold expression returning to his ridiculously handsome face.
“I’m not the man you want to play games with,” he clips out.
I sit back, forcing my armor into place. “Who said I was playing games with you?”
When he doesn’t answer, I pull out my metaphorical knife, sliding it between his ribs in a way I hope stings.
“Don’t worry, Judge. I understand it’s common knowledge I’m in want of a husband, like any good Society daughter. I’ll need to marry soon, and I have many fine prospects, but you don’t fall anywhere on that list. So, there’s no need to get yourself worked up that I’ve caught you in my sights.”
The vein in his neck throbs, but his lip tilts even further as he returns the blow. “Is that what you told Jackson Van der Smit? I wonder, does that wound still burn? Considering he passed you up for his pretty new wife, I’m sure it must.”
Despite my best efforts, I falter. I hate myself for it, but I do. And he sees it, that lingering vulnerability in my eyes I never show the world. It isn’t about Jackson Van der Smit. I hold no love for him. But he humiliated me, and Judge knows it. He discarded me like yesterday’s trash for a woman he barely knew. This after a public courtship everybody was certain would lead to a proposal. For Judge to bring that up makes me angry, but worse than that, it hurts. I hit him with an arrow, and he fired back with an atom bomb.
For once, I’m all out of insults. And I decide I’m tired of this verbal sparring with Judge. So, I turn away and watch the scenery fly by as an uncomfortable silence settles over us. I can feel his eyes on my face. His warmth still penetrates me somehow, even as space lingers between us. It sucks the breath from my lungs as something heavy sinks into my stomach. It’s the unwelcome realization that this man gets to me. And I don’t let anyone get to me.
The car pulls through the gates of De La Rosa Manor, and I’m grateful when we roll to a stop at the entrance. I’ve never wanted to scramble from a car faster, but before I can, Judge captures my wrist in his grasp, halting me.
I close my eyes, drag in a deep breath, and then turn to look at him. “Yes?”
His thumb skates over my pulse, his eyes softening in a way I rarely see from him. “He doesn’t deserve you. He never did.”
Those words feel like an apology, and for a second, I consider telling him it doesn’t matter. Because Jackson doesn’t matter, and he’s not what I’m upset about. But that confession is too raw. Too vulnerable. So instead, I offer him one of my fake smiles and slip from his grasp.
The image of Mercedes with that boy doesn’t bother me half as much as that of her face when I made the remark I made. It was childish. Tit for tat. She’s younger than me. Inexperienced in every way. She may rule the boys who encircle her, pay homage to her, but I am no boy. I know better. But when her comment cut me, I struck back.
“Pull over,” I tell Raul the following morning as we navigate rush hour traffic toward the compound where I have a meeting with Councilor Hildebrand.
He pulls to the side of the road, neither of us caring when the driver of the car he cuts off honks his horn and waves his middle finger at us.
“I’ll be a few minutes,” I tell him and climb out of the car. The idea sparked the moment I saw the jeweler, but it feels older. Like something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and perhaps now, given the excuse of her birthday, it may not be seen as inappropriate.
I walk half-way down the block to the shop where I am buzzed in by the woman who usually serves me when I place an order from the exclusive shop.
“Mr. Montgomery, I wasn’t expecting you,” she looks concerned. “Have I missed an appointment?” She hurries behind the counter to open the heavy, leather-bound ledger.
“No, Anna. I have no appointment and you didn’t miss anything.” I usually call ahead and leave the choosing of the gift in Anna’s capable hands. So, I can understand her surprise at seeing me. “This is a spur of the moment stop.”
She closes the book and tilts her head. “That’s not like you, but let me know how I can help,” she says as I begin to peruse the glass shelves displaying their one-of-a-kind jewelry, creations that range from simple elegance to over-the-top pieces fit for royalty.
“Earrings,” I say. Because the boy had given her earrings. “I am looking for earrings.”
Truth is that her comment about the Cat House got to me. I don’t know why. It wasn’t untrue. I do make use of the services offered at the establishment, a perk of being a member of The Society. Beautiful courtesans always ready to serve you a drink, make conversation, or satisfy any other need. And I know my decision not to marry is something often gossiped about by Society women. I am the right age to marry. I come from good stock. The Montgomery name is synonymous with wealth and power. And yet I have no desire to take a wife or procreate and I won’t be bothered with the acceptable rituals of The Society. I don’t court. I don’t even casually date. What I do, though, is provide a juicy topic for conversation. And that is what Mercedes has heard. It is mostly true, I’m certain. The only thing is that I am bothered by her knowing this. Even if she heard it mentioned by her brother in passing. Although I’m sure given the women who form her little clique the matter has been discussed to death.
I turn to find Anna watching me. I realize she was speaking and I haven’t heard a word.
“I’m sorry, Anna. I was distracted.”
“I understand. I wanted to show you this. It’s a new piece.” I walk to where she sets a satin cushion on the counter and pulls away the velvet covering to reveal a pair of earrings like none I’ve ever seen.
They are lovely.
“Thirty-two individual diamonds suspended as if in air,” she starts, letting me know the carats and the 18K gold setting. “Some of the diamonds are polished, some not. Elegant but not overstated. One-of-a-kind, of course.”
I take one of the earrings, lay it in the palm of my hand. Two rows of diamonds alternating in white polished and green and pink rough diamonds. The gold will compliment her olive skin, the diamonds as unique as she.
“They’re perfect,” I say. “I’d like to take them with me now. Put them on my account please.”
She smiles happily because I am certain she can close shop before it has officially opened for the day, or perhaps the month, given what I am sure the earrings cost.
“As you wish. Would you like me to wrap them?”
“A lucky lady,” she says, eyeing me curiously.
I smile but give nothing away. A few minutes later, I leave the shop and return to the Rolls Royce where Raul is still waiting.
“Thank you, Raul,” I say as he drives to the IVI compound. I send a quick text to Hildebrand letting him know I will be a few minutes late because this morning is the lady’s breakfast. Mercedes organized it to benefit underprivileged children of the community as part of her birthday celebration. A fitting thing for someone of her standing to do.
The morning is crisp and bright, and the courtyard is busy with staff setting elegant tables beneath the tents they must have erected just hours ago because they weren’t here last night.
“Is Ms. De La Rosa here?” I ask one of the staff.
“Yes, sir, she’s inside. Just through there.” She points through the double French doors, and I see the outline of her profile as she discusses the menu with the chef.
My phone pings with a text. I ignore it because I’m certain it’s Hildebrand letting me know he’s displeased with the delay and cross the courtyard to enter through the open doors. I clear my throat, stopping a few feet from them.
Mercedes looks up and does a double take because I’m sure she’s not expecting to see me. She’s wearing a custom-made pantsuit today with a cream silk blouse. It is cut to fit her perfectly and shows her to an advantage although differently than last night.
“We’re good,” she tells the chef, dismissing him, and brushes her fingers over her hair which has been tightly twisted into a chignon at the nape of her neck. She is all business today.
“Judge,” she says, barely looking at me. I hear in her tone that she is still upset. “The Tribunal building is that way.” She points toward it.
“I am aware of where the Tribunal building is,” I say with a smile. “I came to see you.”
“Me?” She raises her eyebrows in surprise. “Why would you need to see me?”
A waiter interrupts us, asking Mercedes a question she answers. I wait until he’s gone to continue.
“Perhaps you have a moment?”
“I’m busy, Judge.” She turns to walk away but I catch her arm. She stops, looks down at where I’m holding her. I don’t let go. I’m not sure she won’t slip away.
“I was unfair,” I say when she shifts her gaze up.
“You’re fine. I need to go.” She tugs.
“And in the midst of things I forgot to give you your birthday present.” I take the small box out of the inside pocket of my jacket.
Her eyes fall to it. I’m sure she recognizes the jeweler. I release her and she clears her throat, meets my gaze.
“I’m using the office there,” she says, pointing to a closed door behind me.
I gesture for her to go ahead. When she passes me, I inhale the subtle scent of her perfume. It’s one that is made especially for her that I have somehow come to memorize. She turns her head just a little and I catch the IVI tattoo on the back of her neck. The empty space above it where one day a man will etch his mark.
That beast of last night stirs. I tell it to quiet and reach around her to open the door then follow her into the small office reserved for use for events such as these.
I close the door and turn to her. She is lovely. Makeup fitting the more serious business of the day although no less sensual. But that’s Mercedes. Stripped to bare skin she will be at her most sensual, I am certain.
She looks expectantly at me. Eyes the gift in my hand.
“Happy birthday,” I say, holding it out to her.
She takes my gift and pulls the ribbon. I watch her face as she unwraps and opens the box. As her gaze falls on the diamond earrings, and she gasps.
“These are…” she looks up at me, mouth open.
“If you don’t like them—”
“No, I love them. They’re beautiful. Just… I’m sure they’re very expensive.”
“Only the best for you. It’s what you’re used to, isn’t it?”
“Is that a cut? Because I believe you and I grew up in similar circumstances.”
“It’s not a cut.” I step toward her, reaching out to take off the diamond studs she’s wearing. Probably the gift from the idiot boy. “I don’t always bring my sword and nor should you, little monster. At least not with me.”
She stands very still, her breath a tremble as I remove the earrings she’s wearing and set them on the desk. Her cheeks flush when I meet her eyes before taking one of the set I gave her and slip it into place, repeating with the other. I brush my thumb over her cheek. I don’t know why. And then I stand back to look.
“Beautiful,” I say. “The earrings pale in comparison.”
She blushes fully, lowering her gaze, an almost shy smile on her lips. I watch her in this rare moment. She is herself. She is vulnerable. Uncertain.
Inexperienced, I remind myself. In every way.
And not for you.
The beast that slumbers inside me, lazily opening one eye, awakens fully now. Because it wants. It desires what it cannot have.
When I step closer, she turns her face up to mine. Her lips part and her pupils dilate. She sets the tips of her fingers against my chest and the touch of them burns. Her fingers trail toward the pulse she was staring at last night.
She brings her face closer, and I hear her inhale. But when her fingertips brush the exposed skin of my neck, I step back. I clear my throat, seeing how her nipples have pebbled against her silk blouse. And I am fully aware of my own arousal at being so close to her.
How thin the ice I have just skated onto is. How dangerous for us both.
“You should go,” I tell her, my voice hoarse.
A sudden cold seems to ice the room. It takes Mercedes a moment to recover, to slide her mask back in place. She stands up to her full height, steps toward me. “Don’t tell me you’re human after all, Judge. Cowed by a mere woman.” Her fingertips dance low across my abdomen and I capture her wrist.
“Careful, little monster. You play a dangerous game.”
“I’m not afraid of you.”
“Perhaps you should be.”
“Like you said last night, it’s the boys who will need rescuing from me.”
I take her other wrist and walk her backward until her back is against the wall and I tower over her. I grin, letting the beast out for a moment, just for a taste, to catch her scent. I brush my cheek close to hers and feel her shudder. She tilts her head back, baring her throat, offering it to me.
Would she give herself so freely if she knew me?
It doesn’t matter, I remind myself. I cannot have her. Not now. Not ever.
“That is correct. But you make one mistake.” She shudders at my whispered words. “I am no boy, Mercedes. I am a man.”
We hope you enjoyed this prelude of Judge and Mercedes’s story! You can find the rest of the Society books linked below.
READY FOR MORE OF THE SOCIETY?
The Society world consists of a series of trilogies, duets, and standalones. Some of the books are interconnected with character crossover. If you prefer to start from the beginning we recommend you start with The Society Trilogy.
Other books in the Society World are as follows:
Want to read more about each series? Check out the reading order and descriptions here.