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Corrupt

By´╝ÜPenelope Douglas

HE WON’T BE HERE.

There’d be no reason for him to show up at his brother’s farewell party, since they couldn’t stand each other, so…

No, he won’t be here.

Pushing up the sleeves of my lightweight sweater, I hurried through the front door of the Crist house and speed-walked across the foyer, heading straight for the stairs.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spied the butler rounding the corner, but I didn’t stop.

“Miss Fane!” he shouted after me. “You’re very late.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Mrs. Crist has been looking for you,” he pointed out.

I shot up my eyebrows and immediately stopped, turning around to peer at him over the railing.

“Has she really?” I eyed him with mock astonishment.

He thinned his lips, annoyed. “Well, she sent me to look for you.”

I broke out in a smile and leaned over the bannister, planting a quick kiss on his forehead.

“Well, I’m here,” I assured him. “You can get back to your important duties now.”

I turned and continued up the stairs, hearing the soft music coming from the party out on the terrace.

Yeah, I highly doubted Delia Crist, my mother’s best friend and the matriarch of Thunder Bay, our small East Coast community, was spending her precious time looking for me herself.

“Your dress is on your bed!” he called after me as I walked around the corner.

I exhaled an aggravated sigh and powered down the dimly lit hallway, grumbling under my breath, “Thank you, Edward.”

I didn’t need a new dress. I already had several I’d only worn once, and at nineteen, I could definitely pick out my own clothes. Not that he would be here to see it anyway, and if he was, he wouldn’t look at me.

No. I should be grateful. Mrs. Crist thought of me, and it was nice of her to make sure I’d have a dress to wear.

A light spatter of sand covered my legs and feet, and I reached down to grip the ends of my loose jean shorts, inventorying exactly how wet I’d gotten down at the beach. Would I need a shower?

No, I was already late. Screw it.

Diving into my room—the one the Crists’ let me have for when I stayed the night—I spotted a sexy, white cocktail dress lying on the bed, and I immediately began stripping.

The thin spaghetti straps did almost nothing to hold up my breasts, but it fit perfectly, molding to my body, and it made my skin look darker than it was. Mrs. Crist had awesome taste, and it was probably a good thing that she’d gotten me the dress, after all. I’d been too busy preparing to leave for school tomorrow to bother with what to wear tonight.

Dashing into the bathroom, I rinsed my calves and feet of the sand I’d picked up on my walk, and I quickly brushed out my long, blonde hair and applied a little lip gloss. I scurried back into the bedroom, grabbed the tan strappy heels she’d left by the dress, and ran back into the hallway and down the stairs.

Twelve hours to go.

My heart pumped harder and harder as I jogged through the foyer and toward the back of the house. This time tomorrow I’d be completely on my own—no mother, no Crists, no memories...

And most of all, I wouldn’t have to wonder, hope, or dread that I’d see him. Or teeter on the edges of elation and agony when I did. Nope. I’d be able to hold out my arms and spin in a circle and not touch a single person I knew. Heat flowed through my chest, and I didn’t know if it was fear or excitement, but I was ready.

Ready to leave it all behind. At least for a little while.

Veering to the right, I bypassed the kitchens—one for everyday use and another adjacent to it for caterers—as I headed for the solarium at the side of the large house. Opening the double doors, I stepped into the massive, ceramic-tiled garden room, the walls and ceiling made entirely of glass, and instantly felt the rise in temperature. The thick, wet heat soaked through the fabric of my dress, making it melt to my body.

Trees rose above and all around me in the quiet, dark room, lit only by the moonlight pouring in through the windows overhead. I inhaled the sweet smell of the palms, orchids, lilies, violets, and hibiscus, reminding me of my mother’s closet and all the perfumes from her coats and scarves blending together in one space.

I turned left, stopping at the glass doors leading to the terrace and slipped into my heels as I gazed out at the crowd.

Twelve hours.

And then I straightened, reaching up, grabbing a handful of hair, and bringing it over my shoulder to cover the left side of my neck. Unlike his brother, Trevor would definitely be here tonight, and he didn’t like to see my scar.

“Miss?” a waiter said as he stepped up with a tray.

I smiled, taking one of the highball glasses that I knew was a Tom Collins. “Thank you.”

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