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Somewhere nearby, Benjy was waiting for me.
I could feel his stare as I made my rounds through the grand ballroom of Somerset Manor, greeting each new face with a smile that was becoming harder and harder to hold. They buzzed around me, vying for a few moments of my time, but we all knew they were only here because of my name and face. I was Lila Hart, the niece of the Prime Minister of the United States and one of the few VIIs in the entire countrywhich, in a roomful of VIs, made me more powerful than them all.
But I didn't want power or fame. If I had my way, I would be tucked away in my suite with Benjy, stealing as many moments alone together as we could. Instead, I was stuck celebrating my birthday with a roomful of my so-called closest friends, led around by a fiancé I didn't even particularly like, let alone love.
Except it wasn't my birthday. These weren't my friends. And Knox Creed was most definitely not my fiancé.
My name wasn't Lila Hart. It was Kitty Doe, and on my real seventeenth birthday in September, I'd been kidnapped by the Prime Minister and surgically transformed into his spoiled, rebellious, and supposedly dead, niece against my will. He'd given me a choice: pretend to be Lila or wind up with a bullet in my brain. I wasn't an idiot, and even though it had meant giving up everything I'd known and everyone I'd loved, I'd chosen to liveand to fight. Three months later, after discovering a lifetime's worth of political conspiracies and secrets that should have stayed buried, here I was, with Knox clutching my arm as he led me through a crowd of people who would kill me if they figured out who I really was.
I glared up at him and tried to subtly twist my arm from his grip, but he hung on. I didn't care that he was handsome and tall, with dark hair and even darker eyes, and that most girls would have killed to be in my shoes. They didn't have to deal with his endless stream of instructions on how to impersonate a girl I hated, nor did they have to pretend to love him in front of the entire country when we spent most days in a constant tug of war.
Besides, I was extremely happy with the boyfriend I already had, thank you very mucha boyfriend who, with his infinite patience, had been waiting over an hour for me to slip away from these people. If I didn't find a way soon, the night wasn't going to end pleasantly for any of us.
"We had a deal," I whispered, leaning into Knox so only he could hear me. "I play nice for a couple hours and leave at nine. It's now almost eleven."
"Sometimes plans change," he said, his fingers tightening around my elbow. Even though he was speaking to me, his eyes scanned the ballroom. "Relax and try to enjoy yourself."
The only times I'd enjoyed myself in the past few months had been those stolen moments with Benjy. "Lila would have never stayed this long. Every minute I hang around, the more suspicious it looks."
"I know," he said quietly, bending down to brush his lips against my ear. The heat of his breath reminded me just how cold it was in the ballroom, and I shivered in my flimsy silk dress. "But sometimes even Lila had to do things she didn't like. Incoming."
I turned around in time to see a portly man amble up to us. Minister Bradley, one of the twelve Ministers of the Union who worked under the Prime Minister. I didn't know many of them on sight, but Minister Bradley's handlebar mustache was burned into my brain, along with the way my skin crawled whenever he was nearby.
"Lila, my dear, you look ravishing." He leaned in to bump his dry lips against my cheek, and it took every ounce of willpower I possessed to keep myself from shuddering. "After all you've been through, I expected something less
" He made a vague gesture, his eyes locking on my chest.
I didn't bother to smile this time. "Minister Bradley. I'm surprised to see you here. I thought your wife was sick."
He chuckled, and his gaze never wavered. "Yes, yes, well, I would never miss a chance to see your beautiful face."
"In that case, you might want to look up here instead," I said, and Minister Bradley turned scarlet.
"I'm sorry, Minister," said Knox quickly, and he hooked his elbow with mine. "Lila's had a bit too much to drink tonight. If you wouldn't mind, darling, I need a quick word with you."
He led me away, and I clutched my glass of champagne.
We both knew I hadn't taken a single sip. I couldn't afford to drink, not when I needed every wit I had to survive the night.
Weaving through the Ministers and their families, along with several of the most prominent VIs in Washington D.C., Knox led me to a table laden with food and cloth napkins folded into the shape of peacocks. The people lingering nearby began to move in, but Knox shot them a look of pure poison, and they scattered.
"You know how important tonight is," he said quietly, once we were alone. He handed me a small plate from the end of the table. "Do you really think insulting Minister Bradley to his face is going to make this any easier on you?"
"He was staring down my dress," I said. "Why do you expect me to smile and let him when Lila would've"
"Right now I don't care what Lila would have done," he said. "I expect you not to cause a scene with one of the most powerful Ministers of the Union and make us another enemy we don't need."
"Everyone in this place is an enemy." I turned away and began to pile my plate with bite-size desserts.
I hesitated, my hand hovering over a piece of pink cake. I was here because I trusted Knox more than I trusted most people, but some days I wasn't so sure he cared about me more than he cared about why he needed me in the first place. "If you don't want me to think you're an enemy, then stop treating me like a prisoner."
Knox sighed. "I wouldn't have to if you quit acting like you don't know how to behave in public. It's been months. You should know the rules by now."
"How can I when you keep changing them on me?" At the next table over, I spotted little bites of steak wrapped in a fluffy puff pastry, and my mouth watered. I hadn't eaten red meat since October. By now I was almost used to it, but there were days I would have given my right arm for a cheeseburger. Today was one of them.
If it was wrapped in a puff pastry, no one would notice, I decided. Edging toward that table, I tuned out whatever lecture Knox was whispering in my ear and casually picked up a piece. One bite. That was all I wanted.
It was half an inch from my lips when Knox's fingers closed around my wrist. "Lila, darling, that has red meat in it."
"Are you sure?" I said innocently, trying to tug my hand away, but his grip was too strong.
I dropped the pastry onto his plate, and the last of my patience went with it. "If you'll excuse me, I need to pee." And find Benjy before he gives up on me.
"You need to freshen up," corrected Knox in a low voice.
"Minister Bradley is staring at me like I'm some prize pig," I said. "I need to pee."
Without warning, Knox wheeled me around toward an antechamber nearby, his fingertips digging into my arm, and he didn't say a word until we'd passed through the doorway. "Do you realize who's here?"
I glanced over his shoulder. Now that we had left, suddenly the buffet had become the most popular corner of the room, as Ministers, their families, and the clingiest social climbers in the District of Columbia milled around, waiting for us to emerge. They all had VIs tattooed on the backs of their necksthe highest rank we could earn after taking an aptitude test on our seventeenth birthday. The same one that decided the rest of our lives, including our jobs, where we lived, how many children we could have, and how long our lives would be. Their VIs meant endless privilege and put them at the top of the food chain. The III hidden under my VII had earned me a one-way ticket to cleaning sewers for the next four decades, if I'd managed to live that long with the few cruddy resources I would've been granted by our gracious government. "Yeah. Every bottom-feeder in Washington."
"Enough." Knox glared at me, and his carefully crafted facade finally dropped. He shut the door. "You can either play nice, or you can explain to Daxton why the entire country suddenly knows who you really are. Because those people out there aren't idiots, despite what you seem to think, and if you keep talking like this where they can all hear you, they will figure it out. Your choice."
"The only thing that's going to make them figure it out is if I act like I'm perfectly happy out there, pretending like I care about any of this," I said, my fake nails digging into my palms. "Lila wouldn't have stuck around this long."
Knox grimaced. Glancing at the door, he took a step closer, lowering his voice. "I know, Kitty. I'm sorry about that, I am. But if we slip away now, someone will come looking for us, and that's the last thing we need tonight, all right?"
"Then you should've told me that to begin with instead of playing this ridiculous game," I said. "I'm not completely unreasonable, you know. If you'd tell me these things"
"I tell you as much as I can."
"You treat me like an object, Knox. Right now, in that roomI'm your prop." I shook my head, torn between seething and breaking down. All I wanted was to go upstairs and be alone with Benjy. With the only person left in the world who still cared about the person underneath Lila's face.
"You're not my prop," said Knox, his tone softening. "I'm trying to protect us both. What we're doing, dangerous as it isit's the right thing to do. You know it is. Don't mess it up just because you're having a bad night."
A painful knot formed in my throat, and I swallowed hard. It was an argument we'd been having for the past month, ever since I had agreed to continue to impersonate Lila. Originally it hadn't been my choice; after Prime Minister Daxton Hart had bought me at a gentlemen's club, he'd knocked me out, and I'd woken up two weeks later to discover he'd had my body surgically alteredMasked, he'd called itto be an exact copy of his niece, Lila Hart, whom he'd secretly had assassinated for leading a rebellion against him. I was supposed to take her place and stop it.
Instead, thanks to Knox, Lila was still alive and hidden underground. And as for meturned out I wasn't okay with standing by and letting the government slaughter the people I love.
That was the only reason I'd agreed to stay when Knox had asked me three weeks ago. It had been after an exhausting night and day, when Augusta Hart, Daxton's mother and the real iron fist around the country, had tried to not only kill me and Lila, but Benjy, too. Instead, I'd put six bullets in her. Now, with Lila seriously injured, it was up to me to pretend to be her until someone took the Prime Minister out of the picture.
That was easier said than done. I'd tried once before and failedand as a result, Daxton had been in a coma long enough to miss the worst of the fight. When he'd woken up, he'd pretended not to know I wasn't Lila, but we both knew who I really was. I was nobody to these people. I had been raised as far away from the life of a VII as you could get, in a group home full of Extras born to parents who were only allowed one child. It hadn't been the most luxurious upbringing ever, but at least I could have had a cheeseburger without having to beg. And at least I'd known exactly who I was. The more time I spent as Lila, the less certain I became that I knew myself anymore at all.
"Think you can handle another hour?" said Knox, crossing his arms over his broad chest.
"One more hour," I muttered, trying to shove aside my frustration. Knox was right; I'd known exactly what I'd agreed to, and playing nice with the Ministers was part of it. "But Benjy gets to stay with me tonight after the meeting."
He raised an eyebrow. "You know the risks."
"I'll pretend I'm staying in your suite. You can tell everyone we had the best sex of your life"
"It would probably be the worst."
I kicked his shin with my heel. "You're a jerk tonight."
He swore and rubbed his leg. "And you're going to get you and your boyfriend killed if you don't"
The doorknob rattled, and without warning, Knox pinned me to the wall. His fingers tangled in my straw-colored hair, and his lips found mine as he kissed me with burning hunger I couldn't escape. I didn't fight him. Better to be forced to kiss him every once in a while than to have someone catch us talking about my real identityor worse, the rebellion against the government that we were leading together.
The door opened, and I broke away from Knox, trying my best to look embarrassed. "If you don't mind, we're sort of busy"
I stopped, and all the air left my lungs. Even after two months of coming face-to-face with him on nearly a daily basis, Prime Minister Daxton Hart never failed to make my heart skip a beat. And not in a good way.
He loomed in the doorway, his bushy eyebrows raised in surprise. They were slowly going salt-and-pepper, matching his dark hair that was graying at the temples. "I apologize. I didn't mean to interrupt," he said in a smooth voice. "Lila, darling, your guests are anxiously awaiting your return."
I held his stare. His dark eyes met mine, and for several seconds, neither of us blinked. Knox had no idea that the Prime Minister knew who I was. Daxton had kept his own secret masterfully, only tipping his hand at Augusta's funeral in order to scare me into compliance. It hadn't worked. This was our own private game of chicken, and I wasn't going to be the first to blink.
"We'll be along in a minute, sir," said Knox. For a moment, I almost felt bad for him. He was the only one in the room who didn't know what was really going on. I should've told him Daxton remembered everythingthat should've been my first conversation after the funeral. But no matter how much I trusted him more than the others, I didn't trust him completely, and I'd hesitated, focusing on rallying the people for the Blackcoats instead. Eventually time had passed, and I knew the fallout would be badthe kind we would never recover from. So instead I'd selfishly held on to the truth as a trump card, to play when I needed it most. Or to never play at all.
Knox did know one thing, though: the secret that I had given up at the funeral, when I had brushed my fingertips against the VII on the back of Daxton's neck and felt the V underneath. I wasn't the only Hart who had been Masked. The only difference between us was that I still had my handler breathing down my neck. Now that Augusta was dead, the man pretending to be Prime Minister Daxton Hart had no one to stop him from doing whatever he wantedincluding killing anyone who dared to step in his way. When everyone I cared about happened to be doing exactly that, it made things personal.
"One minute." Daxton raised a finger in emphasis. "I would hate for you to miss your birthday surprise, Lila."
I shuddered to think what he might have cooked up for me, but I forced a smile. "One minute."
As soon as he shut the door, I leaned in to Knox's ear and whispered, "How are we getting away for the meeting? He's not going to let me out of his sight."
"Leave that to me," whispered Knox, and he winked. Backing away, he ran his fingers through his hair and smoothed his black shirt and trousers. I tugged on my short purple dress. Three months ago, I would have never believed I'd be allowed to touch silk, let alone wear silk dress after silk dress custom made for me. As nice as the wardrobe wasand the shoes, and the food, and the luxuries I could have never dreamed of as a IIIit wasn't worth risking my life pretending to be Lila, and it definitely wasn't worth risking Benjy's by dragging him along.