Capri had never been to a memorial before. She looked in her closet for something suitable, something bold and beautiful. It had to appear as if she had every intention of attending the celebration of life, down to the last detail. She chose her ensemble and went to Marianne’s room to choose hers.
This time, she had no qualms about waking the sleeping beauty. The mark on her cheek was still visible. Their mutual animosity lay out in the open.
“Rise and shine, Marianne,” she said, turning on the lights.
Marianne hissed and hid under her pillow, like a vampire trying to block out the sun.
“Go away,” she commanded.
“No. I have medicine for you.”
Marianne grudgingly accepted the pills and a glass of water. Capri went to her lady’s closet to sort through options for her meeting with Ekon. She turned to get the blond’s opinion, but she’d fallen asleep again.
Capri sighed and decided to let her rest a while longer.
She had known this would be the worst part of the day. She had nothing to do for hours and so much riding on her actions later. Capri ate a small lunch in her room, went for a walk in the garden, and tried not to think too much. She couldn’t concentrate long enough to read.
The other ladies and courtiers were busy with last minute details and gossip. Capri had the halls and garden mostly to herself.
Finally, she’d wasted enough time that it was late afternoon and she could once again attempt to wake Marianne and dress her.
“I don’t like any of these,” the blond said, waving a hand at the three choices laid out on the bed before her. She hadn’t even looked at them. Capri had chosen a red ball gown, a slinky black dress, and a dark blue number layered in embroidered tulle. The last choice would have been especially flattering.
Capri gathered her patience and hung the last dress back in the closet. She pulled it out again, and this time Marianne nodded curtly in approval. Capri bit her tongue and helped her lady dress. Her color was better since she’d rested and re-hydrated, but she was still too skinny. Her knees trembled as she stood to allow Capri to shimmy the fabric up her long legs, slip the sheer fabric over her arms, and close a hidden zipper.
Even Capri wasn’t sure that she’d make it through Ekon’s visit.
She immersed herself in her work at Marianne’s vanity, applying the woman’s makeup, pinning her thick hair into a low bun at the nape of her neck, and choosing a pair of teardrop earrings and sandals to complete the look. For that hour, she was Capri’s canvas and nothing more. She put all the effort into her that she would have into any masterpiece.
Marianne looked herself over, searching for something to criticize, but she could only nod again—acceptance and dismissal. Capri was nearly through the adjoining door, mind already on getting herself dressed and her task for the evening, when Marianne’s voice stopped her.
“Capri.” The tone was cool and familiar, a sure sign that Marianne believed she was about to deliver a scathing blow to an opponent. Capri bristled, ready to defend, but she waited obediently to hear what her lady had to say. “What would you do in my position?”
The question was unexpected, and she proceeded with caution. “What do you mean?”
“Would you really have the king bed another woman? Risk falling out of his favor after you’d worked so hard to gain it?”
Capri paused. The energy between them warned that this was some kind of trap. She tried to keep her response vague, neutral. “He always seems to come back to you, doesn’t he?”
Marianne nodded. The blow never came, but there was something strong and sinister about her. She looked very regal indeed, thanks to Capri’s hard work. “You may be right. Thank you.”
A shiver ran down Capri’s spine. She turned to go again, but again Marianne’s voice stopped her. “I’ll ask him to dismiss you after tonight.”
There it was. Capri nodded, her mind already back on the night ahead. She supposed her chance for revenge had passed her by, but Brody took precedence.
She closed the door and focused on making herself look presentable—no, stunning. Stunning distracted. Stunning was rarely questioned. She donned a striking empire gown with a black corset top and green satin skirt. There was a high slit in the thick, cool fabric, but the floor-length style and wide bow in the back kept it just in the category of eveningwear rather than lingerie.
It was meant to grab attention, to distract, and to keep anyone she came across from doubting that she had every intention of going upstairs to the memorial rather than down to the prison cells.
She left her hair loose but made sure each curl was perfect. She fought the part of her that knew stilettos would look best and settled on a pair of black, low-heel ankle boots. The rest of her ensemble would make up for the necessary faux pas.
She was just putting the finishing touches on her makeup when she heard Ekon in the next room. She paused. They’d be eating now—or, at least, he would. Marianne would settle for a sip or two of soda water. The voices were quiet at first, murmurous, seductive. Then they grew louder.
Maybe Marianne was putting her foot down, after all.
Capri ignored them, rubbing oil on her arms and chest in a thin layer, making her skin scented and supple. In just a few minutes, she could leave the room and go upstairs to Briony without drawing suspicion. Most attendees would arrive early. Even if Marianne came looking for her, her absence from the adjacent room wouldn’t be suspicious.
She placed a silver armband over each wound and was still clasping the eye hooks on her bodice when the door to Marianne’s room burst open. Ekon stood there, looking wild, shirt pulled apart and pants undone. Capri’s surprise was replaced with a familiar fear.
She stared at him, wide-eyed, waiting for him to speak or move. She kept her hands over her top, shielding her breasts from view.
“Don’t act so shy,” Ekon said, voice disturbingly controlled despite his appearance.
Capri glanced over his shoulder. Marianne stood there, smiling triumphantly.
“You’ve let our secret slip.”
She didn’t answer him. There was nothing to say. Capri remembered their conversation from when he’d appointed her to this position with disturbing clarity. She waited like prey in the face of a predator, itching to run but unsure of which direction to take. So, like prey, she would waste too much time in indecision and die in the end.
“No matter,” he murmured. He removed his shirt and took a step forward. Capri held her ground, but inside she was screaming. Not again, not again. “Marianne tells me you’ve volunteered to take her place tonight.”
The other woman still watched them, arms folded, a smirk on those thin, dry lips that appeared so full and lush thanks to Capri’s handiwork. She felt the betrayal like a knife—quick and painful. She’d never trusted Marianne, but she’d stupidly believed she was no longer a threat. Once again, she’d underestimated her. Once again, Marianne would be the cause of her pain and humiliation.
Anger and hatred filled the wound. With renewed conviction, she decided that Marianne must die.
Capri’s eyes slid back to Ekon’s, even as she knew it was hopeless, even as she knew she no longer had any hold over him. “There’s been a misunderstanding.”
“How unfortunate,” he replied. “However, I require a bedmate, and I’m eager to prove my capabilities to you. I believe I’ve learned some new tricks that might satisfy you.”
His eyes locked on hers, and any sliver of hope she’d had of escaping the situation vanished. He’d been rejected by Marianne and made to feel inferior by Capri’s own stupid words—likely thrown in his face by the blond during their argument.
He was out of control and angry on many levels, and he would win this battle of wills. Their eyes remained locked as he pulled his erection through the flap of his pants and stroked it once, twice.
“On your knees,” he commanded.
Capri clenched and unclenched her fists. Her first instinct was no longer to succumb. She wanted to fight. She wanted to claw Ekon’s eyes out with her freshly-manicured nails and then go for the other woman’s throat. Marianne seemed determined to watch, to witness her rival’s humiliation for herself this time.
Maybe Capri could do it. Maybe she could win. But she didn’t have the time.
This could be done in a matter of minutes, and then she’d still be able to catch Briony before she and Gina left for the memorial. She could still free Brody. She’d come this far—too far—to let her pride stand in the way now. She forced herself to remember the bigger picture.
She obeyed her King.
She knelt down and opened her mouth. He was rough, unforgiving, punishing. He grabbed her freshly-styled hair and pulled. Tears welled in Capri’s eyes. Her heartbeat was fast and erratic, like the organ was trying to jump out of her chest to save itself.
She felt dizzy and ashamed—and angry. A vision of Brody flashed in her mind, and with it came a flood of emotion. He was always angry. If he ever found out about this, he would be angrier still. If he found out the reasons, he’d feel guilty.
She could save them both the trouble if she would just act.
She came to life—the prey in the predator’s claws—and she bit down. Ekon screamed, a strangled sound, and he jerked back, removing himself from her mouth. She only had a moment of sweet relief before he raised his hand above his shoulder and brought the back of it down against her cheek.
This time, Capri did taste blood. His palm hit her other cheek with a hard slap, and he didn’t seem ready to stop the assault. His eyes were filled with fury; he was too far gone to care about the fact that he was damaging part of his precious collection.
She scrambled away from him, back against the vanity. She shoved the chair at him, and it stopped him long enough for her to reach in the drawer and grasp the knife. The sharp tip glinted in the dim light of her room. He stopped, and she saw Marianne in her peripheral, hands over her open mouth. She was stunned. Scared. Good.
Capri stood and backed away from Ekon, who held up his hands. His expression was one of anger, indignation, skepticism—but he held perfectly still, unwilling to risk her wrath if he was wrong.
“You would kill your king?” he asked quietly, once more calm and in control. He didn’t look at all remorseful for what he’d just done. The two of them deserved one another, Capri decided.
“That depends on my king’s next move,” Capri said. Her voice shook, but the hand holding the knife was steady.
Ekon put his wounded, flaccid penis back in his pants, buttoned his shirt, and glanced behind Capri, using her mirror to fix his dark hair. Every movement was precise, never betraying fear, but he wouldn’t move closer. When he was satisfied with his appearance, his eyes slid up the length of her body, pausing at her exposed cleavage before finally meeting her gaze.
“I’ll deal with you after the memorial,” he said. He turned slightly to glance at Marianne. “And I won’t be bothering you again.”
Then he was gone. Pride, she imagined, had kept him from calling out to the guards during the altercation. She turned her furious gaze on the blond, who shrieked and closed the door. Capri wanted to rip it open and cut the other woman’s throat. She could do it. Right now, with all the pain, anger, and adrenaline pumping through her, she could do it.
But if she was going to help Brody, she had to go. Now.
She set the knife down and looked in the mirror again. There was nothing to be done about the red marks on her face. They would bruise, and they would be ugly. She dabbed her bleeding nose and lip, fixed her hair, and finished clasping her bodice. She retrieved the supplies she’d need for the night’s events from the box under her bed. Then she placed the locket around her neck and opened the sliding door to the corridor.
A guard was there, waiting for her. Capri’s heart beat hard in her chest. He would keep her in the room. But his expression was mild, and he held out his hand.
“I need to confiscate a knife from you.”
Capri released her breath and gave him the blade. He let her pass, assuming, she hoped, that she would be going to the memorial before accepting whatever fate Ekon decided to hand out this time around. They knew—or thought they knew—exactly where she was at all times. As far as they were concerned, the whole palace was her prison.
Anger flared in Capri again, but she kept it sealed within herself, saving it for later. She walked quickly to the elevator and prayed Briony would still be in her room. The blond was helping her lady get ready and came out into the hallway to talk to her. Briony’s brow furrowed as she managed to tear her eyes away from Capri’s dress and focus on her face.
“My God, Capri, what happened? Was it Marianne?”
“In a way.” Capri’s voice was bitter. She was already reaching behind her neck to unclasp the locket. “I’ll explain later. I need you to do something for me.”
“Anything,” Briony agreed without question.
Briony held out her hand, and the locket and chain pooled in the center of her palm. She looked bewildered. “I don’t understand.”
“I know. I’m sorry. Just promise me you’ll wear it. Don’t take it off for any reason. I’ll come back for it.”
“I have to go. I’m sorry.”
She turned and ran for the stairs, glancing at a clock in the hall. She had ten minutes to make it to Brody while avoiding the guards and anyone else who might let it slip that she wasn’t attending the memorial with her best friend at all. That’s how it had to look.
She felt for the full, capped syringes taped to her thigh. Their cylindrical shapes were reassuring. She removed the stun gun from her other thigh, biting her lip as the tape ripped soft, unseen hairs from her skin. She had to be ready.
It would all be over in just a few minutes—one way or another.