By Jenna Black
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2013 Jenna Black
All rights reserved.
The limo pulled up to the curb at the entrance of Chairman Hayes's Long Island mansion, and Nadia dug deep in search of an untapped reserve of energy. Her throat scratched with the early warning signs of a cold, and if she had any choice she'd be cuddled up in bed with a good book and a cup of hot tea, not spending the next four or five hours at a wedding reception. However, this was the event of the season, and she'd heard her mother's lecture on the duties of an Executive enough times to know it by heart. Attending state events was on the top of that list, so staying home was not an option.
A liveried attendant hurried to open the limo's door. Gerald and Esmeralda Lake, Nadia's parents, exited first, posing and smiling for the photographers while Nadia stayed momentarily hidden behind the limo's tinted windows. She wrinkled her nose at the stately mansion, hating the place. Chairman Hayes had built it shortly after Paxco had bought out what was then the state of New York. It had been the first in a long line of dominoes that had eventually led to the transformation of the United States of America into today's Corporate States. The mansion was a monument to the Chairman's ego, not an actual home meant to be lived in.
Too bad she would have to live in it someday.
Nadia plastered a smile on her face and exited the limo. Cameras flashed from all around her, and the photographers called out orders for her to turn this way and that. The good news was that only the most respected — and well-behaved — reporters had been invited to cover this event, so everyone was being very polite, and if her smile drooped or she blinked at an inconvenient moment, those photos wouldn't show up on the net.
The mansion was positively aglow, golden light flooding every visible window. White bunting draped the marble-columned porch, and a bloodred carpet drew a path between the driveway and the front door. From outside, Nadia could hear the lively music that said the reception was in full swing. The atmosphere might have been festive, if it weren't for all the armed guards who tried futilely to fade into the background. Even at its most joyful and relaxed, the mansion had teeth, and only an idiot would forget that.
Nadia kept the polished smile plastered on her face as she and her parents made their way through the gauntlet of photographers, and she didn't let it slip while going through the endless receiving line. Her cheeks ached by the time she and her parents stepped into the ballroom, a vision of antique elegance with its crystal chandeliers, soaring ceilings, and large parquet dance floor on which no one was yet dancing. Arrangements of white flowers abounded, with the occasional splash of pink or yellow for contrast. The mingled scents of gardenias and roses made her nose itch. Liveried waiters made the rounds, offering cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, and the Executives of Paxco and Synchrony mingled to celebrate the alliance between their two states that would be cemented by this wedding.
As soon as they entered the ballroom, Nadia and her parents went their separate ways. She was expected to mingle, but she was on the lookout for an inconspicuous corner she could park herself in. Her cold was gaining ground, and the last thing she wanted to do was engage in a round of social sparring. She snagged a glass of champagne punch from one of the servers and edged her way toward the wall, eying one of the enormous flower arrangements. It might be tall enough to completely hide her from view if she stood in just the right spot. Then she wouldn't have to —
"Nadia!" cried a delighted voice from behind her, and Nadia fought a sigh.
Forcing another smile, she turned to face Jewel Howard, who looked painfully perfect with her blond ringlets and her frothy pink gown. As always, Jewel was flanked by her younger sister, Cherry, and their mutual friend, Blair. The Terrible Trio never failed to show up at any event where they might find fodder for their favorite pastimes of malicious gossip and intimidation. Unfortunately, their families were the cream of the Executive crop, so protocol required Nadia to act as if they were all best friends.
"Your gown is simply stunning," Jewel said while giving Nadia the requisite air kisses. "I could never wear that color without looking like a ghost."
Jewel's skin was the same unblemished alabaster as Nadia's, and while Nadia was confident her royal-blue gown wasn't too dark for her skin tone, she hated the frisson of doubt Jewel's comment triggered. The society columnists would eviscerate her if they felt she'd chosen the wrong gown for the occasion. There was an edge in Cherry's and Blair's smiles as they enjoyed their leader's backhanded compliment. Ordinarily, Nadia would have shot back an appropriate rejoinder, but tonight she just wondered if she could give them all her cold if she breathed on them enough. The image of Jewel with a runny red nose was almost cheering.
Nadia took a sip of her punch, which was watery and way too sweet. The bubbles in the champagne irritated her throat on the way down, and she stifled a cough. "Wasn't the ceremony beautiful?" she said in her best imitation of a gush, knowing the Terrible Trio couldn't resist the opportunity to dissect every moment of the wedding. Nadia might not enjoy the gossip and small talk that were the most prized skills of girls of her station, but that didn't mean she wasn't good at it. She put in just enough commentary to keep the conversation going, and though she internally winced at some of the Trio's most vicious critiques, at least their malice wasn't aimed at her. For once.
Nadia let her attention stray from the conversation, her eyes scanning the ballroom, and that's when she saw him.
Nathaniel Edison Hayes, Chairman Heir of Paxco, was flat-out gorgeous. His dark, unruly hair had been slicked back for this formal occasion, and he wore the standard black tux, but there was always an aura of contained energy around him that made him stand out in a crowd. His deep blue eyes sparked with mischief.
Nate was talking to some stuffed shirt Nadia didn't know, but he seemed to have a sixth sense where she was concerned, his eyes straying unerringly to hers practically the moment she caught sight of him. He grinned at her, and there it was, that glint in his eyes. He said something to the stuffed shirt — something offensive, or at least not particularly polite, based on the man's outraged expression — then turned away from him as if he didn't exist, making his way through the crowd toward her. As future Chairman of Paxco, Nate could get away with behavior that would have lesser Executives ostracized.
Nadia smiled back at the boy she was destined to marry, enjoying the view more than she liked to admit. He would be any girl's dream husband: rich and powerful and handsome. And Nadia was more than happy with their betrothal. Well, not betrothal, exactly. Their parents had agreed to the match when Nate was six and Nadia was four, but they couldn't be legally betrothed until they'd both reached eighteen, and Nadia still had two more years to go. Two more years of watching every well-bred girl in Paxco throw herself at him — or be pushed at him by ambitious parents. Two more years of not just good behavior but perfect behavior on her part to ensure no action of hers would discredit her family before the arrangement became legally binding.
Nadia knew the moment the Terrible Trio caught sight of Nate, because their inane banter suddenly stopped. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw all three of them stand up just a little straighter, hold their chins just a little higher. Jewel even took an extra deep breath so the tops of her breasts peeked out of her décolletage. Nadia resisted the urge to roll her eyes. If only Jewel knew how little her assets interested Nate.
"Be still my heart!" Nate declared when he was within earshot, sweeping all four of them with a lascivious look. "Such beauty will surely blind me." His voice dripped with so much exaggeration Nadia almost laughed out loud.
"You are too kind, sir," Jewel simpered, leaning forward so Nate could look down her dress if he wanted.
Always happy to play the role of the charming rake, Nate glanced downward and smiled, and though Nadia knew he was only playacting, she couldn't help bristling. If Nadia or her family were to commit some gaffe and the Chairman were to choose another bride for Nate, Jewel would be one of the top candidates.
"Shouldn't you be off talking to important dignitaries instead of flirting?" Nadia asked Nate.
Nate frowned, but at least he stopped looking down Jewel's dress. "I believe that's my father's job. I'm the ne'er-do-well son, remember?"
How could she forget? While she painstakingly navigated the protocol and etiquette of Executive society, careful never to set a foot wrong lest disaster strike, Nate barreled through life as though he were invincible.
But in many ways, he was.
"Shall we dance?" he asked, holding out his elbow to Nadia.
Uh-oh, she thought. There was a reason no one else was dancing, and Nate knew that as well as she did. "I don't think the bride and groom have danced yet," she said cautiously, hoping that didn't sound like a rebuke. She knew from experience how Nate reacted to even subtle rebukes. "But I'll be sure to save you a dance later."
His exaggerated pout told Nadia immediately that she'd made a tactical error. There was nothing like telling Nate he shouldn't do something to make him stubbornly determined to do it. "This is supposed to be a party," he said. "There's supposed to be dancing."
His elbow was still raised, as if he couldn't conceive of the possibility that she might turn him down. Nadia was painfully aware of the Terrible Trio watching her, enjoying her dilemma.
Nate didn't give a damn about protocol, but the rest of Executive society did. Protocol demanded that the bride and groom be allowed the first dance. Protocol also demanded that Nadia dance with her future husband when he asked her to. No matter which option she chose, people would talk, and her parents would later critique her decision. Nadia's mother would invariably decide that Nadia had made the wrong choice, and her father would agree because that was the path of least resistance.
Nate dropped the grin, his eyes filling with earnestness. "Dance with me," he said more softly. "Please."
Internally, Nadia sighed. She was never any good at saying no to Nate, and he knew that. She really should put her foot down. The more she gave in, the more he would take. Plus, she had the uneasy suspicion there was something more to this invitation to dance than met the eye. Some deeper trouble Nate planned to get into, dragging her along for the ride.
Nate plucked the champagne cocktail from her hand and downed it in three swallows, handing the empty glass to a passing waiter. Nadia shook her head.
"You shouldn't have done that," she told him. "I'm coming down with a cold."
Nate shrugged it off. "Will you dance with me, or won't you?"
Despite all her natural caution, she found herself taking his elbow and allowing him to lead her to the dance floor. If people were going to talk no matter what she did, then she'd rather dance with Nate than endure the Trio.
Nadia was painfully aware of the eyes following their progress. She imagined every whisper of conversation was about her, about the breach of etiquette she was about to commit. An exaggeration, of course. Most of the partygoers were no doubt oblivious, locked in their choreographed pleasantries or Machiavellian scheming. Until Nate swept her into the dance, that is. The background mutter of conversation faded for a moment, then came back at renewed volume.
"I'm never going to hear the end of this," she murmured, already second-guessing her decision. But then, if she'd refused to dance, he might have asked Jewel instead. Nadia knew he despised Jewel almost as much as she did, but that wouldn't have made it any more fun to watch him dancing with her.
Nate smiled down at her. "People would be disappointed if I didn't do something shocking and inappropriate at least once this evening. I have a reputation to uphold."
"Your father would be over the moon with joy," she countered. Nathaniel Sr., Chairman of Paxco, was humorless and unyielding, Nate's exact opposite. She was glad that she would one day be Nate's wife, but the prospect of having Nathaniel Sr. as a father-in-law was considerably less appealing.
"My father is off somewhere meeting with his cronies. You don't think he'd waste his precious time enjoying himself at a party, do you?"
That was probably true. The heads of over a dozen of the Corporate States had gathered to celebrate this wedding, and they weren't here because of their affection for the happy couple. The whole grand affair was merely a pretty façade masking a bunch of political and business meetings. The alliance with Synchrony had major implications for Paxco's technology division, making it possible to incorporate Synchrony's more advanced microprocessors into Paxco's currently second-rate hardware. If Nate were acting like a proper heir, he'd be sitting in on those meetings, learning the ropes, instead of making a stir on the dance floor.
"So, were you really so impatient to dance, or did you have some other reason for making a spectacle of yourself?" Nadia asked. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a few other couples edging toward the dance floor indecisively.
"You looked like you could use a rescue," Nate said, and Nadia felt a flash of gratitude. "Besides," he continued, "I don't need an ulterior motive to dance with the most beautiful girl in the room."
Nadia snorted, an undignified sound she was glad no one but Nate could hear. "Yeah, because you're such a ladies' man."
Nate laughed, and she smiled at him ruefully. He played at being a ladies' man whenever he was in public, flirting shamelessly. Most of the unmarried Executive girls would swoon if he so much as looked at them, and Nadia was very much aware that not all of the jealousy aimed her way was because of her future husband's status. What girl wouldn't dream of having someone so handsome and charming in her bed? But any girl who shared his bed would spend a lot more time sleeping than she expected.
Nadia tried to ignore the sudden tightness in her chest. In just a few short years, she would be that any girl, lying untouched by Nate's side. Or lying alone in bed while Nate cavorted with someone more to his taste.
"Cheer up," Nate said into her ear, no doubt appearing to onlookers as if he were whispering sweet nothings. "Not only did I rescue you from death by gossip, I made sure we stole all the attention. You know how the Trio hate that."
Nadia couldn't help laughing. She glanced at the Trio and saw them huddled together like witches over a cauldron. They were all smiling, but the expression rang slightly false. Other couples were venturing out onto the dance floor, but the Trio would be too worried about their reputations to join in the fun. In one fell swoop, Nate had deprived them of their prey, their fun, and the attention of the state-approved photographers in discreet attendance. And he'd made her laugh when she felt miserable. All in all, it was probably worth the parental disapproval she was sure to face.
Nate and Nadia were no longer the only couple on the dance floor. The bride and groom had ventured out first, and then the other couples found their courage. The music came to an end, and Nate spun Nadia to a finish. The next song started up almost immediately, but it seemed Nate had lost interest in dancing once the shock value was used up.
"Let's give our audience even more to talk about," Nate said as he led her off the dance floor.
Nadia didn't know what he meant until she realized he was leading her toward a doorway at the back of the ballroom. A pair of security guards flanked the doorway, and as if their presence wasn't enough to clue everyone in that the rooms behind were off-limits, the lights in the hallway were off. Once again, Nadia had to suppress a groan. Everyone would notice the two of them sneaking off into the residential part of the mansion, and everyone would draw conclusions about what they were doing back there. Conclusions that would help Nate's camouflage, to be sure, but that wouldn't do her reputation a whole lot of good. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Replica by Jenna Black. Copyright © 2013 Jenna Black. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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