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Shadows pressed in on Gibson from every side.
Somewhere in the darkness they were hiding, waiting to pounce the moment he let his guard down.
Gibson fought to stay calm, but his heart hammered so loudly, he was sure they would hear it.
He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply through his nose, tasting the air as much as smelling it.
The feedback was immediate and overwhelming. His head filled with the pungent smell of his own sweat, the metal of the cyclone fence that enclosed the field and buildings, and the exact scent of each man that lay in wait for him.
A shiver lifted the hair on his arms and he shook himself and opened his eyes to prevent the giving in to it.
All around him, the shadows moved like living things.
He advanced through the darkness, heading away from the ones he had scented. Not much further now.
A tiny sound stopped him in his tracks.
Again, he closed his eyes.
When he opened his ears to their full potential, he nearly lost his tenuous grip on his self-control.
He tuned out the thunder of his own heart, and reached beyond. The harsh breath of one of his brothers let Gibson know he wasn’t the only one struggling to keep it together.
He inhaled again, letting the powerful combination of sensations wash over him.
The air took on a familiar coppery taste, and the ground trembled almost imperceptibly.
The night lit up in a blinding flash and the smell of ozone washed every other scent from his palette.
He covered his sensitive ears to shield them from the assault.
The deafening crash ended with a blaze of fire and the smell of burning wood.
Fear grasped him like a cold hand, and he dropped to the ground, cowering and whining low in his throat. His skin crawled and this time he welcomed it.
The change would bring safety.
The voices of the men seemed far away as the electricity sizzled under his skin. He heard the clicks of their rifles and their shouted orders, but he didn’t care.
A higher voice cut through the chaos.
Her silhouette appeared then, backlit by fire.
She was dressed like his brothers, but she wasn’t one of them.
“Easy, Gibson,” she said, her green eyes sparkling through the gloom.
He didn’t fully recognize the words, but felt her meaning.
“Just listen to the sound of my voice,” she continued in her throaty soprano. “Hold onto it, sweet one. Hold on.”
He focused on her voice, the fascinating timbre that walked the line between cheer and lullaby.
“You were doing very well,” she praised him. “We didn’t expect a thunder storm. What you heard and saw was lightning striking the tree in the yard.”
He didn’t understand. But he latched onto her voice like a drowning man, and at length his heartbeat slowed and he was able to hold the thing inside him at bay.
When she seemed satisfied with his composure, the woman snapped her fingers and one of the men with guns approached.
“Bring him back to his quarters,” she told the man. “And be sure he has something good to eat.”
She turned to Gibson.
“Good work, my brave one,” she said with a smile that was as professional as it was kind.
Warmth at pleasing her blossomed in Gibson’s chest as he followed the other man away.
The ballerinas had arrived.
Cordelia Cross stared out the window and took a few cleansing breaths while she waited for the elevator to bring them up from the lobby.
No amount of meditation would actually prepare her for the crazy scene she was about to orchestrate.
She knew better than that.
But she always tried to be calm enough on the outside that she wouldn’t add to the chaos.
The top floor of the Worthington building practically skimmed the clouds. Outside, the night sky drizzled over Glacier City and the bustle of tiny car lights and umbrellas below. Some days Cordelia felt like she was looking down onto one of her sister’s train set scenes. How perfect and pre-arranged everything looked when observed from a distance.
Giggling in the elevator shaft alerted Cordelia to the arrival of her employer’s latest conquest.
Not that he had put a whole lot of effort into this one.
Well, he’d seen the ballet - that much he had done. Though, to be fair, he had left in the middle. Edward Dalton, his head of security, had brought lavish flowers and invitations to attend a private party backstage afterward.
Despite his reputation, six of the young dancers had been brave, or foolish enough to accept.
A few minutes ago Mr. Worthington had stormed around the room denouncing the food, which Cordelia had arranged. His handsome face twisted with displeasure and his massive frame set the mahogany tables shivering.
“Why the hell would I want to eat yogurt and fruit? I work out hard. I want real food!”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Worthington. Dancers have to be very careful about what they eat. I thought they might relax and enjoy themselves more if you served something healthy.”
“Hmm,” he paused, and turned to her, considering. “Nice touch, Cord.”
His teasing smile had tickled her insides, even though she knew he would have given the exact same smile to any woman he met without a thought.
Westley Worthington didn’t have to think about much.
But Cordelia had spent enough time around him to know he was very, very smart, all the same.
“Thank you,” she said, and looked down at her feet.
The less she said to West, the less likely he was to fire her. He fired plenty of people - many of them for good reason. But some just because he didn’t like them. It seemed that he liked Cordelia, or at least he respected her. And in his world that was probably more important than liking.
She certainly didn’t want to rock the boat. However hard it might be to work for him, she would never find another job in this economy at even half the salary he provided.
Since the zoo went under, there weren’t exactly a ton of job openings for someone with her qualifications. And her sister’s situation made the idea of relocating unthinkable. At least she could type, and didn’t mind the crazy hours.
The elevator dinged, snapping her out of her reverie. Cordelia plastered on her most professional smile as the doors slid open.
“Welcome, ladies,” she said as the six dancers stepped out. “Mr. Worthington is so glad that you could make it. He’s on an important call at the moment, but I’m here to show you around and explain a few ground rules for your visit.”
Mr. Worthington was always on an important call at the beginning of these things.
The girls looked back at her in stunned silence. With their hair down and street clothes on, they somehow looked even younger and thinner than they had on stage.
Cordelia wanted nothing more than to pack them up some dinner and send them on their way. But she knew the women who came to the penthouse were always here of their own free will and she certainly hadn’t seen anyone freak out and leave in the middle of a party.
Though crying on the way out wasn’t unheard of.
“Of course the penthouse is full of priceless artwork and important artifacts. It goes without saying that visitors are not to touch the displays.”
She pointed to an incredible fossil that occupied a huge chunk of the wall opposite the elevator. Captured forever in stone, it showed two dinosaurs, locked in mortal combat.
In Cordelia’s opinion, the fossil ought to have gone straight to a museum. But the ranch owner who had found it on his land decided to auction it off. Mr. Worthington had been quite taken with it, and had outbid all the museums to buy it for his private collection.
Before the auction there had been whispers that some wealthy philanthropist might buy the fossil and donate it to a museum. But when West Worthington won the auction no one even imagined that he would do anything but lock up his prize in luxury storage.
Somehow, he had managed to make things even worse by leaving it out on display in the foyer of his opulent penthouse. Once a day, a maid dusted its glass case. Otherwise it lay ignored and vulnerable to Mr. Worthington’s fits of rage and his guests’ drunken debauchery.
The ballerinas didn’t seem impressed.
“The penthouse is quite spacious. However, your invitation extends only to the main floor,” Cordelia continued. “Under no circumstances may you go up or down any staircases during your visit unless you are accompanied by Mr. Worthington.”
The ballerinas giggled nervously. They probably expected he would pick the prettiest one and take her upstairs. Boy, were they in for a surprise.
By now, they had stepped out of the foyer and into the expansive living room. The ceiling, which was ample enough in the entry, soared up to a twenty foot height, and three massive walls of glass exposed the twinkling lights of the stars above and Glacier City below.
Cordelia heard the expected gasps and sighs behind her. Giving the guests a chance to take in the view, she scanned the room to be sure everything was in order.
The center of the room held a sunken conversation pit, lined with dozens of satiny pillows and encircled by an elaborately carved handrail.
The mahogany tables along the back wall were covered in platters of vegetables and fruit. Miniature cut glass bowls surrounded gorgeous trifles of yogurt and colorful berries.
Mr. Worthington’s childhood friend, Peter Watson, stood behind the fully stocked bar. He wore a well-tailored tuxedo and stared straight ahead in a very professional manner.
Cordelia was pretty sure he was up to no good. She tried to convince herself this wasn’t another one of their juvenile wagers.
But she knew better.
Cordelia cleared her throat and the dancers turned back to her. The way they clustered together and moved as one reminded her of a herd of gazelle: lithe, graceful, and totally unaware of the lion that waited in the next room.
“Our final ground rule is that no guest is to contact Mr. Worthington after this evening. As you may imagine, he is a very busy man. Our head of security, Mr. Dalton, has your information and photographs on file in the lobby for security purposes. We do keep this information indefinitely. So, if Mr. Worthington wishes to contact you for any reason, you may rest assured that he has the means to do so.”
There’s a first time for everything, Cordelia supposed.
“Speaking of Mr. Worthington, I’m sure he’ll be here any moment. In the meantime, please help yourselves to the refreshments and I do hope you enjoy your evening.”
She flashed them a smile once more before turning on her heel and heading for the foyer. She was paid, and handsomely, for all manner of nonsense. But there were still one or two things she would not bear witness to.
What do you think?
Do you have any predictions about what might happen next?
If you were casting this book like it was a movie, is there an actress who you would cast as Cordelia?
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