I forgave Michael, partially because I had to and mainly because I wanted to. He was the only friend I had left. I often wondered what was meant about his secrets. Here, I had no idea. Was he involved with bad people, did he work for Lucielle, was he a spy of some sort? I just didn’t know. Everything was still so new and unfamiliar to me, alarming and unpredictable.
He kept me busy every day, though, with dancing lessons and taking me out for dinner or to the spa. Since that one outing with Fia, he seemed to really enjoy it so we continued to go back. We went to a couple more welcoming parties and both times I didn’t see Fia, but I found myself looking for someone else, a particular bastard with intense gray eyes. I didn’t catch any glimpses of him either, to my disappointment.
Grudgingly, I had come to realize the turbulent feelings I had been experiencing were because of Luca and not what Fia had done. The emotions that were storming inside me and directed to Luca were confusing. I hated him, but why did I strain my neck to look into the crowd when I thought I saw his unruly black hair and why did I turn on impulse when I thought I felt his eyes on me? Like Michael had warned me, he was an asshole, he was dangerous, and he was trouble. Though, wasn’t it Michael who told me I needed to live a little? I needed to stay away from him, but I couldn’t. I was so conflicted.
I would be discouraged and I would want to go home, but I put on a good show for Michael so he could enjoy himself while he was here, instead of babysitting me. I don’t think constantly dealing with and watching a woman as if she were a child would be an ideal afterlife for anyone. So, pretending to have a good time for his sake was the least I could do. I would encourage him to dance with other women and I pointed out girls I found attractive. I made myself appear to be social, chatting and dancing with a few people, but when we finally retreated back home and I slipped into bed, I would almost weep tears of joy.
My dancing improved vastly over the course of those few weeks, with lessons every day. There were many different types of dances and all with confusing steps that I slowly became more and more used to as Michael taught me to count with them. I loved the way Michael’s face lit up when he rushed into my apartment and told me they finally set the date and place for the masquerade party.
“You’ll love it, I think. It’s supposed to be all classy and only relatively safe people have been invited. It’s super formal so I’ll need to get a find a better suit but one of your long dresses would work and then we need masks. Your eyes will look beautiful under a mask, though I wish I could see the rest of your face.” He had said with a blindingly bright smile.
Now it was the day or night of the party and I had been practicing dance moves for hours while staring at the lovely blue dress I had found in my closet. It was long, naturally, but made of a smooth cloth that hugged my torso and fell loose after my hips. The skirt swooshed around my legs as I twirled and spun. The day prior, Michael had taken me to some hidden store and we each got masks that would match what we were wearing. The ocean colored fabric of my dress and the mask made my eyes appear impossibly blue. My makeup was fairly simple again, mainly because the mask would cover several inches of my face. I put on mascara and black eyeliner as well as red lipstick. My hair fell in waves over my shoulders and down my back.
I got ready quickly and waited for Michael, deciding I wouldn’t put on the mask until we were near the party because it all but took away my peripheral vision and in Hell, that made me feel uneasy. Anyone could reach from some hidden doorway or a corner and gain the upper hand on me. Just my luck, there wouldn’t be any bricks around that time, but I could use my stiletto as a weapon…
Michael knocked, stirring me from my increasingly dark thoughts, and I raced to the door, pulling it open with a smile.
“Wow, Seph, you look amazing.” Michael actually seemed sort of stunned, though he had seen me in all types of attire. He’s seen me when I look homeless, when I’m disgustingly sweaty after our practices, in casual wear like jeans and t-shirts, and dressed to the nines.
“You too, stud muffin,” I winked. “Michael, I’m so excited. I’m scared, too, but mostly excited.”
“I’m glad. I thought this would be up your alley. Plus, you get to see Sector Greed and see if you would want to work there. After the party, we can stop by the casino and I can introduce you.” He held out his arm.
I took it. “Do you know everyone?”
“Maybe,” He laughed and we left the building. “Listen, it’s going to take awhile to get there because Greed is on the other side of Hell.”
“That’s fine. I don’t want to be too late, though. I’ve never been to a masquerade ball and I want to get the greatest experience.”
“No pressure or anything,” Michael whispered. “Well, I aim to deliver. We’ll just have to walk fast then.”
“Don’t leave me in the dust. My short legs can only reach so far.”
He laughed at that joke, but we did make it to the party on time.
Sector Greed was different from the other sectors I had been in. Everything seemed to be more grand, ooze more power. Instead of prostitutes lining the streets, there were advertisements for escort services. This place seemed to be like Las Vegas, but better, as if Las Vegas was a cheap knock off. Shades and curtains were scarce here, so many windows were illuminated and transparent. People wanted to show off what belongings they possessed, like infinity pools that contained naked bodies swimming in them. Casinos lined every street, with all kinds of names and flashing signs to catch your attention. In between casinos, there were bars and gentlemen’s clubs that certainly didn’t look empty. Spotlights spun in no apparent pattern, lighting up the clouds in the sky, and the neon lights bathed my skin in all colors of the rainbow. All of the people that I had seen were dressed incredibly well, with many accessories to broadcast their wealth or status. They smoked rich cigars in alleyways, leaning against brick, flicking ashes onto the pavement, eyes glinting as I walked past them.
When we reached a particular casino on the edge of Greed’s business district, Michael steered me inside and we walked over to the attendant waiting by the elevators. He pulled an invitation from inside his coat and brandished it to the attendant, who briefly looked it over, glanced between us, and then ushered us inside the glass elevator. He slid a key into the specific floor, usually inaccessible by the public. The elevator immediately pulled us up, and because it was made of glass, I could view everything on the floors that we passed. The different levels of the casino were dedicated to different types of gambling; poker, blackjack, slot machines, roulette, craps, and baccarat.
“Up for some gambling, Seph?” Michael whispered into my ear.
“Was never interested in it, though I did find the idea of counting cards in blackjack very interesting.”
“That’s a huge violation here. Lord Vincent doesn’t tolerate it at all. You get caught and boom, you’re done. Immediately punished.”
“For it being Hell, there certainly seems to be a lot of unspoken rules,” I mumbled under my breath unhappily.
“Without them, it would be complete and utter chaos. It basically is over in Sector Violence. It’s better in our sector. You chose wisely at your arrival.”
The attendant bristled with the mention of Lord Luca’s sector. “Horrible place,” he muttered.
Michael nodded his head in the attendant’s direction. “See?”
“Not planning on ever going there. No need to worry.”
Michael gave me a stern look because I really hadn’t heeded his warnings before.
The elevator kept going up further and further, starting to pass private suites where I assumed people lived. “What floor is this gathering of yours on?”
“Near the very top. Besides, you should be used to this, penthouse bitch.” Michael playfully elbowed my side.
“Says the man who comes over nearly every day now.”
“Forgive me, but what sector are you two from?”
“Are you Persephone Flemming, by chance?” He asked, wide-eyed.
“Yes,” I said slowly and glanced at Michael.
“It’s an honor to meet you.” The attendant bowed slightly. Then, the elevator slowed to a stop and the doors opened. The attendant let us out before I could ask why he’d heard of me. “Have a nice evening.”
“Michael, what the hell was that about?” I hissed as we put on our masks in the hallway. I smoothed down my hair afterward, glancing in an ornate mirror hanging on the wall. The ceiling was completely painted with vivid detail, pictures of angels, saints, and demons, like something that could be seen in the Vatican. Its irony and beauty were not lost on me. There were double doors a few paces away, and soft music was drifting through the cracks.
“Don’t worry about it, Seph. You look great.”
“I’m very nervous, Michael. What if I make a fool of myself?”
“These people don’t care about anyone but themselves. They won’t care if you stumble.”
“You’ll have a good time. Let’s go.” He held his arm out for me to grab.
“Polite as always.”
“You bring out the best in me, what can I say?”
The elevator dinged behind us and another pair came through its doors, so we hurried along and the doors opened for us, light spilling out along with classical music. We stepped into a massive ballroom that was nearly filled with masked elegant women in ballgowns like myself and masked men in specially tailored suits. An actual band of classical musicians played in the corner of the room, adjacent to the bar. It felt like Michael and I were in a different century. A giant crystal chandelier shivered above the dancefloor, casting light prisms across the room. Another set of doors were opposite of us but closed.
A waiter passed by, carrying a tray of full champagne flutes. Michael snatched two and handed one to me, leaning close. “For your nerves,” he whispered into my ear.
I sipped it slowly and observed the people dancing. “They’re so gorgeous, all of them.”
“Yet they pale in comparison to you.”
I rolled my eyes beneath my mask. “Michael, really? You don’t have to compliment me every five minutes.”
“It’s the truth.”
A middle-aged man with a pretty girl on his arm stopped in front of us. “Michael Knight, is that you?”
The man laughed and held out his hand. “I’d know your face anywhere, Knight.”
Michael shook his hand vigorously and laughed with him. “It’s been awhile.”
“Has it? One tends to forget.” Jonathan’s eyes settled on me under his mask. “And who would this be? Such a ravishing escort you’ve found, Michael. Your taste is admirable. Mine is from Elle’s, what service is she from?” He took my free hand and kissed it as I widened my eyes at Michael.
“She isn’t an escort, Jonathan. She’s my friend and neighbor. Please treat her with respect.”
“Of course, of course. My apologies, Miss…”
“Persephone Flemming.” I spoke up for myself instead of letting Michael do this for me, too.
“Pleasure to meet you, Persephone.”
Michael pulled me away from Jonathan. “Care to dance?”
“That’s the idea.” I smirked and Michael pulled me into the throng of dancers as the song ended and another began. It was hard to lose myself to the music while I was busy attempting to remember dancing lessons.
“Quit frowning, Seph. You look like you’re not enjoying my company.” Michael teased playfully.
I put on a brilliant smile. “I am. It’s just that I don’t have the best memory, but at least I’m not stepping on your feet.”
The song changed and it was a new dance, which he lead me through like a pro. I was having fun because, in my opinion, this was a lot better than a club. Michael spun me around and I caught a glimpse of a masked man lying across a chaise lounge and surrounded by beautiful women. If they were escorts or here because they were important people, I didn’t know. I nodded in the man’s direction. “Who’s that?”
Michael was able to look the next time we spun around. “That would be Lord Vincent.”
I hadn’t recognized him behind the mask. “What’s he doing here?”
“Other than this being his sector? Maybe because this is his party.”
“Oh.” I snapped my mouth shut. “You took me to a sector leader’s party?”
“You don’t give me much of a choice with your standards. We’re going to need to thank him for being our host before we leave.”
We finished the dance, and another, but then Michael left me to go get some drinks. I moved to the side of the ballroom so I was out of the way of the dancers. I stood not even a minute before I was asked to dance by some anonymous but tall male.
“You look lonely.”
“Strange, I’m not feeling particularly lonely.”
“Would you like to dance?”
“I’m not sure if you would. I’m kind of a beginner at this dancing thing.”
“That’s fine. This one doesn’t look too complicated.” He nodded towards the dancers. “I promise I won’t try anything with you. I see your friend over at the bar. I was just waiting for a chance when you were free.”
“If you insist, but it’ll be on your head when your toes are sore afterward.” I took his hand and he pulled me into the dance, somehow immediately falling in step with the others despite it already having started. “You’re good at this.”
“And you’re a natural.” He smiled but continued to lead me carefully.
The song ended and Michael tapped on the guy’s shoulder. “May I have my partner back?”
“Of course, Knight. I’m sure it’s hard to be away from the gorgeous Persephone for too long.” With that, my dancing partner left to blend back into the people dancing.
“Did you know him?” Michael asked when his arm was firmly around me.
“Did you know him? You’re the person who knows everyone and has connections.” I countered. “These masks aren’t very helpful if everyone can tell who we are, are they?”
“You’re becoming well-known. We already established that.”
“I don’t want to be well-known.”
“Maybe quit going out and making huge scenes with the sector leaders.”
“And who keeps pushing me to go out?”
Michael rolled his brown eyes at me. “Truce?”
I sighed. “Fine, truce.”
“You know, you’ve been dancing this entire time without counting under your breath. Great job.”
“I hadn’t even realized.” I blushed.
“You’re becoming very good.” The dance changed and Michael immediately frowned. “This next one is the one where you change partners several times. We practiced it but…”
“Not wanting to share me? Is that it?”
“No, this one is more lively and, well, difficult.”
“I think I remember it. I practiced this one by myself.” I took a step away from him as we lined up with everyone else. I came together with Michael again as the dance started, our bodies twirling in a half circle before we each moved to our right and gained new dancing partners. This went on for some time as I danced with men and women alike. Then I was thrust into the arms of a tall man in a wonderfully fitted suit, but the way his hand fell upon my back was familiar. He spun me around in the half circle harshly as I whipped my head up to look at him. He was wearing a mask, but his gray eyes were all too familiar.
“What are you doing here?” He hissed in my ear, continuing to spin me off the dance floor.
“Where are you taking me, Luca?”
“Lord Luca.” He growled the correction, grabbing my hand as he headed towards the door. He paused to nod in someone’s direction.
When I turned my head, I saw that he was nodding to Lord Vincent. Vincent, raising his eyebrows above his mask in surprise, grinned and laughed at my terrified expression when Luca opened the door and jerked me into a darkened room. The door closed behind him, coating us in darkness, but I could just make out Luca’s profile as he slammed me up against the wall.
“What are you doing here?” He repeated.
“Can’t a girl have a little fun?”
“And let me guess who brought you here. Michael Knight?”
“Why is that any of your business?”
“God damn it, Persephone.” He slammed his fist against the wall near my head. “You are so naive, so blind to the things going on around you.”
“Where have you been lately? Why have you been hiding from me at the welcoming parties?”
“Hiding?” He scoffed. “I was avoiding you. Just your presence is enough to put me off.”
“Is that why you’ve singled me out and took me into a private room?” I grinned. “Slammed me up against a wall. My, my, my… This is familiar.”
“Shut up.” He gave an animalistic growl. “All you fucking do is antagonize me.”
“Me?” I laughed and thought about the way he had shoved and pushed me before. “You abuse me, Luca.”
His hand wrapped around my throat, sending tendrils of raging fire through my veins. “How many times do I have to say it? It’s Lord Luca.”
“You can say it as many times as you want, bucko. I don’t give a shit about your title.”
His face jerked closer to me, his hand squeezing tighter. “Persephone…”
I had found my confidence, here in this dark room with Luca strangling me, despite being weak in the knees and heat flushing my face. “What are you going to do, Luca? Kill me? Strangle me to death?” I coughed lightly but I could still breathe fine and I’m sure Luca was aware of that. “What will that achieve? Making me hate you more?”
He seethed, air whistling between his teeth, but his free hand pulled my mask off. I was a bit startled that he did such a thing, the action ultimately pointless unless he wanted to see me better.
“What will they call it, Luca? A crime of passion?” I spat my venomous words at him, knowing I was being overly dramatic, but then his hot lips were on mine. My fists hit against his chest, trying to get him off me, but his hand was still around my neck, still pinning me to the wall. He was much stronger than I was so the struggle I put up was useless. He broke away for a second, just long enough for me to say, “Luca, you son of bitch.”
His mouth was on me again, with feverish, passionate kisses that made every inch of me warm. God, I thought that if his hand hadn’t been around my throat, I would have slipped down the wall. The other hand was raking through my hair roughly, angling my head for easier access. “Shut up, Persephone.”
“If you ever touch me again, I will kill you.” I moaned into his mouth, savoring the taste of his bourbon tongue and minty lips. I wanted to mean what I said so badly, but how could I? I wanted this so much more.
“Shut the fuck up, Persephone.” His hand slipped from my throat and was replaced with his lips. My breath caught in my throat as my heart pounded wildly. His fingers trailed down my skin, playing with the neckline of my dress for a moment, but slid down to hold my waist before sliding me up the wall. He supported my weight by grasping my thigh with one arm. I heard my wooden mask creak under my thigh.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I hissed.
“I do whatever I want.” His lips moved back to mine again, his hand running down my arm until it met my hand, and then wrapped my arm around his neck.
“Luca, I swear to God…” I murmured before my tongue was suddenly busy with his. I raked my fingers through his unruly hair because I had been thinking about doing that since I first saw him.
Luca pulled away from his lips away from mine by a millimeter, his gray eyes glinting in the low light. “You can swear all you want, Persephone, but God isn’t here.” He had said that before, after the night of my welcoming party.
The door opened and light spilled onto us, making us blink as our pupils constricted. Lord Vincent popped his head in and grinned upon seeing us. “I see you two couldn’t make it to the bed? Is this a party for two or are there more invites?”
Luca pulled away from me slightly as he growled. “Get out, Vincent.”
The light made see my current situation for what it truly was. I took that chance to unwind myself from Luca’s grasp and punch Luca in the face. His lip came away bleeding and my fist came away radiating pain. To me, that was a pleasant exchange. He looked wildly at me as Vincent laughed in the background. “That’s for slamming me up against a wall, twice, and kissing me without my consent, you motherfucker.” I glanced down at my mask in his hand. “Now give me back my mask.” I didn’t wait for him to comply and just took it from him instead, putting it back on as I smoothed my hair and breezed past Lord Vincent. “Great party.”
“I see why you like this girl, Luca. I hope you’ll share her eventually.”
I spun on my heel and pointed my finger at Vincent. “Listen, buddy, I’m not his fucking property and I’m sure as hell not his to share, especially with the likes of you.” I turned my back on both of them when I saw Vincent’s eyebrows raise, stepping back into the party.
“Persephone, wait!” Luca followed me.
“Touch me again and see what happens, Luca.” I hissed under my breath when a couple passed by us, glancing at him sharply. “You’ve got a little lipstick and some blood on your mouth there, Luca.” I moved on and he looked like he was about to follow me.
“Luca, I need to talk to you, now.” Lord Vincent hissed.
I left them behind and deposited myself at the bar, ordering something a little stronger than champagne.
Michael ran up beside me and I could see the sweat dripping down his temples. “Where the hell have you been? I’ve been looking for you! Why is your lipstick so smeared?”
The glass of bourbon was set in front of me and I used the napkin to wipe off the rest of my lipstick. I picked the glass up and downed the alcohol, the flavor reminding me of Luca’s tongue. My gaze briefly flickered over to him talking to Lord Vincent who was now sitting in the chaise lounge again.
Michael must have followed my gaze because he started staring at me disbelievingly. “Oh, no, no, no. Persephone, what did I tell you?”
“I know, Michael, but I’m not getting into you with this right now.”
“It’s none of your business.”
“But I’m your friend.”
“I didn’t have a choice, Michael. He pulled me away. Not supposed to make any more scenes, remember?”
“Then why does Luca have a bloody lip?”
I was suddenly very interested in my second glass of bourbon and didn’t reply.
“Right then… Do you want to leave? We still have to go to that other casino.”
I downed the rest of the bourbon. “Of course.”
“Unfortunately, we still have to pay respects to Lord Vincent.”
“Are you serious?”
“God help me.”
Michael’s eyebrow shot up.
“I know, I know. I don’t think he’ll help me but I think I need some better luck or mojo or something.” I grumbled as I followed Michael across the room to the chaise lounge.
Michael bowed before both of them. “Lord Vincent, Lord Luca.”
“Michael Knight.” Lord Vincent grinned and sat forward, elbows resting against his knees. “A pleasure seeing you here.”
I stood as still as a statue, even as Michael nudged me to bow or curtsy or whatever.
“Persephone Flemming, I’m enchanted as always.” Lord Vincent nodded.
“Right. Like I said earlier, great party tonight.” I pushed through clenched teeth.
Vincent’s eyes flickered over to Luca, who was standing as still as me, but I could see the way his fists clenched and his veins popped out from his skin. “I’m sure you had a splendid time.”
Michael got up and I almost turned to leave with him, but Luca took a step forward and his hand reached out to me. “Luca, I warned you.” I hissed under my breath.
His hand dropped back to his side, but he came very close to me and whispered in my ear. “I still owe you those self-defense lessons. Throwing punches aren’t always going to get you out of sticky situations.”
“Well, they’ve seemed to work well enough so far.” I countered.
“And so they have.” He grabbed his chin and licked his lip, his tongue fiddling with the split and reminding me exactly what it tasted like minutes before.
Michael’s arm went around my waist and he pulled me away. It was a possessive gesture, but after all, we were supposed to be a couple.
Luca took a step forward, but Vincent grabbed his arm. “Don’t,” he said cooly.
Michael didn’t waste any time getting me the hell out of there, in no time on the streets of Sector Greed again.
I opened my mouth to ask a question, but Michael cut me off before I began.
“Don’t ask me any questions. I probably can’t answer them anyways.” He ran his hand through his blond hair after taking off his mask. “You just keep making enemies. I think you have a talent, Persephone, I really do.”
“Seems like you have plenty of them, too.”
“Because of you!” He exclaimed finally. “None of this what like this before you came here. You’ve set things in motion you couldn’t possibly understand and you can’t possibly change. You aren’t aware of all the enemies you’re making, or the number of eyes that are falling upon you and exactly how dangerous that is. How the hell am I supposed to keep you out of this if you keep dragging me in?”
“This is Hell, Michael,” I grinned after recovering from the shock of his sudden outburst. “Fuck the rules.”