Authors: Jenna Black
Dante reached through the bars and took her other hand, and she let him. Her heart was beating double time, and she couldn’t seem to take in enough oxygen.
“When I heard you’d been arrested—” he started to say, then had to stop to clear his throat. “I’m sorry I had such a chip on my shoulder when we first met. It didn’t take me long to realize you weren’t like the rest of the Executive girls, but it wasn’t until you were arrested that I realized how much I’d come to … admire you. I told myself that if I ever saw you again, I’d let you know. So here I am. Letting you know.”
She couldn’t tell in the darkness, but Nadia suspected he was now blushing. He shifted awkwardly from foot to foot, and she worried that her silence was giving him the impression she was offended or uncomfortable. She was neither.
“Thank you,” she said, and it was her turn to squeeze
hands. “It means the world to me that you came all the way out here to see me, even if it was just to bring me the phone. I feel a lot less alone now than I did before I got your note.”
Dante smiled at her, but he let go of her hands. She tried not to let her disappointment show. It was certainly for the best. If someone were to catch her holding hands with a servant in the middle of the night, it would be just the kind of scandal that could land her in a retreat permanently.
“The phone is secure and untraceable,” he said, turning businesslike. “Nate has a secure phone, too, so he can call you if there’s trouble. You only want to use it in case of emergency, though. Don’t call him because you feel blue.”
She had no trouble reading between the lines, and she laughed a little. “I’ll assume your resistance leaders are listening to every word I say if I ever use the phone.”
This time, she was sure he was blushing, but he didn’t tell her she was wrong. “I’m sure you’ll be getting out soon, but just in case you need to see a friendly face, I’ll come hang out here at midnight every night. You don’t have to come meet me, but I’m here if you need me.”
Nadia’s eyes widened. “You don’t have to do that!”
“But I will anyway.”
Because his resistance bosses wanted him to? Or because
wanted to? Nadia didn’t have the guts to ask.
“You’ll waste almost three hours driving back and forth from Manhattan,” she protested. “And you still have a job to go to, don’t you?”
“I’m still acting as your father’s ‘assistant,’ if that’s what you’re asking. But he doesn’t trust me, so it’s not like he gives me anything important to do. I won’t collapse of exhaustion if I lose a little sleep each night.”
There were other protests Nadia could have tried. She could have pointed out that someone might notice him leaving his room in the servants’ quarters every night and wonder what he was up to. Or that every time he visited the retreat was another chance of getting caught. Obviously, he had to be borrowing someone’s car to get out here, because an Employee of his rank would have to scrimp and save for years to afford one. Which meant there was yet another chance of getting caught, one more person in the loop who might talk.
But the idea of having a lifeline waiting outside the fence for her every night, the idea of having someone to talk to, of having a familiar face who could keep her up-to-date on what was going on in the world, was too much to resist.
“Thank you,” she said for what felt like the millionth time.
Her eyes got misty when she finally had to leave and get back to her bed.
Wednesday morning, Nate received his first ever message on the secure phone Dante had acquired for him. It was a photograph of Nadia, holding a similar phone. Proof that Dante had held up his end of the bargain. Nate should have found the photo reassuring. Nadia was no longer so completely cut off from the outside world. But instead, the photo made Nate wish he could ride in there on a white horse and sweep her away.
The girl who would one day be the Chairman Spouse of Paxco stood behind bars, dressed in a shapeless tunic and pants that were obviously a uniform of some sort. Better than a prison jumpsuit, to be sure, but still strangely ominous to his eyes. She was smiling for the camera, but she wasn’t putting much effort into it. She knew how to paste on a smile for the public to see no matter what she was feeling inside, but for this photo, she wasn’t bothering. It made her seem even smaller and more vulnerable, but maybe that was just Nate’s guilty conscience dragging him down. If it weren’t for him and his stubborn insistence on carrying out a secret rebellion at a very public wedding reception, none of this would have happened.
Of course, if none of this had happened, Thea would still be operating on “expendable” victims in the basement of the Fortress, vivisecting them in an attempt to understand the connection between a person’s body and mind. The A.I. had learned how to re-create a human body and a brain with all its personality and stored memories—Nate was living proof of that—but that hadn’t satisfied her. Her ultimate goal was to re-create a human mind in a body of her choosing, so that she could make the Chairman—her protector and benefactor—quasi-immortal by re-creating his mind in a younger body whenever old age started to degrade his current one. In the grand scheme of things, destroying Thea had been for the greater good—certainly the helpless Basement-dwellers and prisoners Thea had used as test subjects would say so—but it remained to be seen how brutal and far-reaching the consequences would be, especially if the Chairman ever found the recordings.
Nate frowned at the photo when he noticed for the first time that the jacket draped over Nadia’s shoulders wasn’t part of her uniform. At first, the dark jacket had blended in with the dark background of a nighttime shot, but when Nate stared at it more closely, he could clearly see it was much too large to be Nadia’s own, and its design was unmistakably masculine.
“Dante,” Nate muttered with a muffled curse, fighting the surge of territorial aggression that made him want to throw the phone across the room. He closed his eyes and mentally shook himself by the scruff of the neck. He had already established that he had
right to feel possessive toward Nadia. She would never be more than a friend to him, even when she was his wife. She had never liked Kurt, but it had never seemed to bother her that her husband-to-be was in love with someone else, and Nate wanted to be just as mature and accepting of her. Unfortunately, he couldn’t seem to make himself feel the way he
to feel, and he didn’t like the idea of Dante taking a special interest in Nadia.
Shaking his head, Nate turned off the phone and tucked it into his pocket so he didn’t have to see the offending photo anymore. He was making something out of nothing, even if he
had the right to be jealous. So Dante had given Nadia his jacket. So what? He was just being a gentleman when Nadia was cold. Harmless and inoffensive.
And yet he had chosen to take the photo while Nadia was wearing the jacket. Nate couldn’t help suspecting it had been a deliberate attempt to get under his skin.
“And you’re letting him get away with it,” Nate admonished himself with another surge of annoyance.
It was time to stop thinking about what designs Dante might have on Nadia and start concentrating on getting through what was sure to be a tough day.
day that included being in the same room with his father was a tough day, but today would be worse than most, because his father had demanded a meeting first thing in the morning. Nate suspected it had something to do with the ad for Replica technology he had shot the previous week. Obviously, the ad was now obsolete, but since the public didn’t know that, it was still airing on the net. Nate had been in rough shape when he’d shot it, and he’d done a terrible job—he cringed and hit the mute button whenever it came on—and he suspected his father wanted him to do a new and improved version. Kind of a waste of money, except Nate was beginning to think his public image needed some serious rehabbing. The fact that he was a Replica made people uneasy, and there was more than one crackpot on the net trying to convince everyone he was some kind of danger to society. Getting some positive images out there might help.
In the old days, there was a good chance he would have blown the meeting off and weathered the storm of his father’s temper later. Pissing off his father had been one of his favorite pastimes, after all. That was before he knew his father could murder him in cold blood without missing a beat. And before Nate realized how badly he was shirking his duties as the Chairman Heir.
Long habit had Nate arriving at the Paxco Headquarters Building—formerly known as the Empire State Building—about a half hour late, despite what had started out as reasonably good intentions. Nate had vowed to himself that he would start being a more responsible heir and spend more time at work, learning the ropes so that he’d have a clue what he was doing when he became Chairman. He hadn’t quite lived up to that vow yet, but he was still reeling from everything he had learned about his father’s secret activities and about his own murder.
Nate didn’t feel like prolonging the inevitable, so he didn’t even stop by his own office before heading up to the top floor. He fully expected to be kept waiting even though he was already late, and when his father’s secretary told him to go right in, a chill of unease traveled down his spine. Maybe his father had decided to dispense with the mind games, now that he and Nate had all their cards on the table.
Nate dismissed the possibility as soon as it crossed his mind. The day the Chairman stopped playing mind games would be the day he died. Letting Nate come in immediately when he was used to having to wait was just one more, designed to put him off balance from the start.
The Chairman was standing in front of his floor-to-ceiling windows, holding a steaming cup of coffee in one hand while gazing out at the city majestically. The Empire State Building had once been the tallest building in the world, and though many other buildings had eclipsed it in size, the view from the top was still spectacular. Not that the Chairman was really admiring the view; he was just posing for effect.
The Chairman held the pose for a handful of seconds before taking a seat behind his desk. Usually, he had papers scattered all over his desk, but today it was meticulously neat, the dark leather blotter free from its usual clutter.
As was no doubt his father’s intention, Nate’s eyes were drawn immediately to the stack of stapled papers sitting in the middle of the blotter with a thick gold pen perched on top. The print on those papers was small, and Nate wasn’t very good at reading upside down anyway, but if he had to guess, he’d say they were contracts of some sort.
“You wanted to see me?” Nate said, hoping he sounded more nonchalant than he felt. His every instinct told him that something bad was about to happen, and the satisfied glint in the Chairman’s eyes reinforced those instincts.
“Yes,” the Chairman said with a predatory smile. “Please, have a seat.” He gestured toward the pair of chairs in front of his desk.
Nate didn’t want to sit, and if it weren’t nine o’clock in the morning, he might have invited himself over to his father’s liquor bar for a drink. Not that the delay would have gotten him anywhere. He forced his feet forward and lowered himself into a chair.
“What’s this about?” he asked. He tried not to stare at the pile of contracts, not wanting to give the Chairman any satisfaction.
Nate’s father leaned back in his chair and took a sip of coffee before answering. “You know that we’ve been hosting a delegation from Synchrony since Monday?”
Nate knew that. He might be a little lax about his duties, but he wasn’t living in a cave. He frowned. “I think I heard about that in the news somewhere.”
Nate was pleasantly surprised to find he could still make wise-ass comments, considering what he now knew about his father. It felt almost normal, except for the way he tensed up on the inside after the words were out.
“I thought maybe it had escaped your attention, seeing as you failed to attend the dinner and cocktail party that were held in their honor. Did your majordomo misplace your invitation?”
Nate snorted in disdain. He attended at most one out of every five social events he was invited to, and most of those were only brief appearances, photo ops for the press. His father could hardly be surprised that he had chosen not to attend a dinner or cocktail party with a bunch of visiting dignitaries.
“If you called this meeting just to scold me for not coming to the party—” Nate started, leaning forward as if to rise to his feet.
“Of course not,” the Chairman said. “I know from experience that would be about as useful as scolding an infant for wetting its diaper.”
Nate gritted his teeth against the urge to defend himself. His father certainly had some justification for thinking of Nate as childish and irresponsible, and if he was going to turn over a new leaf, he would have to start getting more involved in both business and social politics. He settled back in his chair once more and waited for the Chairman to continue.
“As I’m sure you know—despite an astounding lack of firsthand experience—events of this sort are rarely the social occasions they appear to be to the general public. Chairman Belinski and I have had some very fruitful meetings about how to strengthen the bonds between our two states.”
Nothing surprising in that. Paxco had been courting Synchrony for some time, hoping to improve trade relations and gain better access to Synchrony’s low-cost, high-quality tech products. Paxco had sunk all of its R&D and manufacturing money into the Replica project, and now that Thea was gone, the Chairman must be desperately looking for new revenue streams to tap into. Most of the Synchrony tech was designed with military applications in mind, but it could easily be adapted to civilian use.
Of course, Paxco and Synchrony had already taken a significant step toward becoming bosom allies when Chairman Belinski’s niece had married into one of the top Paxco Executive families. It had been at the wedding reception for the happy couple that the Chairman had ordered his hatchet man to stab Nate to death because he’d overheard an incriminating conversation.