by TJ O'Shea
A smile, a dance, some flirtatious banter—and witty heiress Luciana Piccolo was swept off her feet. Literally.
When a mysterious, gorgeous woman whisks her onto the dance floor at her father’s masquerade ball, Lucy is thrilled to break the shackles of her privileged but purposeless life. But when the same woman kidnaps her and whisks her to the hideout of the rebels fighting to topple the regime she’s set to inherit, Lucy isn’t thrilled to be actually shackled as a prisoner. She is forced to accompany her abductor—a laconic, rigid assassin named Taylor—across the war-torn regions of the former United States as Taylor carries out perilous assassinations and leads the growing rebel army.
Relying on each other to stay alive, the antagonistic spark between Lucy and Taylor smolders into an ardent flame. Secrets unravel and the stakes get fatally higher, as the battle between new love and old loyalty may prove more dangerous than the war they’re trying to survive.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"Though no parent really chooses a favorite, The Order has a special place in my heart. As the first full-length novel I ever wrote, there is nearly a decade of me inside the text. Tons of little Easter eggs and sly references to some of my favorite works. The characters of Lucy and Taylor have lived with me longer than any others I’ve written, and I love them very much. I’m so excited to finally share them! Their story means a lot to me as one of perseverance, love against all odds, and never giving up the hope of a better world."
Emma A. - Wow, what a ride! In this powerful and well executed long novel the author imagined a dark dystopian future for America. It's so well paced that makes you want to just keep reading. There is a lot of action, energy and tension packed in it, but also a lot of emotions. Both the plot and the character development are excellent, and O'Shea has managed to give a strong message to all of us. Her next book can't come soon enough. Highly recommended!
Cheryl W. - This is a dystopian epic story filled with action, philosophy and love. …It is a fantastically written book and I couldn’t put it down. O’Shea has moved up on my list of favorite authors and I can’t wait for her next book.
Cathie W. - Definitely one of the best books this year, The Order is a book that will stay with me and be on my re-read list for the foreseeable future.
Mikhila N. - …The writing is so beautiful and again usually with books like this authors flock to over-description to try and create a more tense setting but O'Shea stays away from that dilemma and gives us a very easy-to-read yet not too surface-level interaction with the plot….There are also several plot twists and emotionally draining moments that had me on the edge of my seat wondering what was gonna happen next.
Ariana R. - An eat the rich dystopian novel. Love TJ O'Shea novels! I would of enjoyed 3 books in this universe.
Betty H. - …The Order is a well-written, remarkable adventure and romance novel that you do not want to miss. It has my highest recommendation.
Natalie T. - …The Order absolutely captivated me with its intriguing plot which was packed with twists and turns.
Carolyn M. - ...This is one of the books I'll be re-reading every year, if only to hang out with these people for just a little while longer.
Two disembodied heads pop out of my bedroom window. My maids hiss my name like a curse, their flailing arms bidding me upward to the window. Digging my sneakers into the vine-covered trellis, I clamber up the side of the mansion and both maids pull me inside with a flurry of curses and caveats. Violet leans out and swears under her breath at the tangled remains of vine and splintered white wood I left in my wake, ostensibly wondering how she’ll explain it to my father. She shuts the window in a rush, yanking the drapes closed and running her hands over the heavy burgundy linen.
“Miss Lucy, you know he doesn’t like this.” No, he doesn’t like this. Just as Papa hasn’t liked every other time he’s caught me sneaking in and out of the mansion over the past twenty-four years. But if my life consisted solely of the things he liked, I’d be throwing myself out of the window instead of climbing into it. “This is against the rules. You are a lady, you shouldn’t be going to these…” She scrunches her face and gives me a quick, displeased sniff. “Places.”
“I am still a lady. My current state of dishevelment notwithstanding,” I say to their matching expressions of tired, but affectionate, chastisement.
“You know the number one rule: no leaving the mansion without a guard.” That is indeed the rule, but it doesn’t get any fairer no matter how many times she reminds me. “We have failed. Your mother would have our heads, may she rest in peace.”
“My mother wouldn’t keep me as a prisoner in my own home,” I shoot back.
“She would not need to because you would not anger her on purpose as you do Leader Piccolo.” Ruby gives me a knowing look. Fair enough. “And these rags!”
My eyes roll so hard I think they’re going to fall out their sockets. “They’re hardly rags.” My shirt costs more than Ruby will make all year, but I don’t say that, because that’s the kind of rudeness that would disappoint my mother. Luckily for me, you can’t disappoint the dead.
“Leader Piccolo would call them rags,” Violet says with a nod, roughly undressing me as Ruby retrieves my dress. Oh, sure. Only clothes costing a fortune and tailor-made for me are fit to be worn by the fruit of his loins. He thinks quite highly of his loins.
“Sure, but sometimes it’s nice to look like a regular person.”
I wiggle out of my jeans and Violet takes the garment from me with two pinched fingers, like it’s an unclean dishtowel. “But you’re not a regular person, Miss Lucy. You know how dangerous it is for a woman like you to be out after dark. Plenty of unsavory people would take advantage of a rich woman alone at night.”
“Luciana!” Papa’s heavy footfall pounds up the staircase treads, matching my heartbeat thud for thud.
“One moment, Leader Piccolo! There was a problem with the dress.” Ruby glares at me. “Making me lie to the leader. Next you will have me joining a gang.”
“That would be quite a sight,” I reply. “Have you shanked anyone before?”
Ruby pats my cheek. “You should never hope to find out, little girl.”
“I don’t know why you insist on angering your father. Leader Piccolo only wants what’s best for you. He bought you this nice dress.” Papa bangs his fist on the thick oak door. “One moment, Leader Piccolo!”
“The currency of Papa’s affection has always been currency. No surprise there.” I call over my shoulder, “Oh, just come in, Papa!”
The door flies open as Papa makes his grand, angry entrance, and the two women skitter away in a sweep of apologies and ducked heads, shutting the door in their hasty retreat. They know better than to get between Papa and me in an argument. By the way Papa’s neck has reddened like a cartoon rocket, I know I’m about to hear it. He rarely visits my wing of the house unless he needs to admonish me for a trespass against him. Or, in this situation, to yell at me for not promptly and gratefully attending his tacky masquerade ball.
“Luciana Regina, where the hell have you been?” Papa’s thick New York accent is particularly affected when he’s angry. The city swells inside him until it chokes his vocal cords, every syllable a gunshot.
His reflection in the mirror of my boudoir reveals his puffy frame stuffed inside an expensive suit. Our resemblance begins and ends at our last name. Papa is short and round, topped with a pile of black hair he insists on slicking back, along with a knobby nose and small, inset brown eyes. Stood next to each other, we look like the number ten.
“I’ve been right here, Papa,” I reply, gulping. “In my tower, where you left me.”
“You were expected downstairs well over an hour ago, figlia mia,” he says. “We have guests.”
“Papa, it’s a masquerade ball. If nobody knows who I am, they can’t miss me,” I explain evenly, hoping the pitter-patter of my heart doesn’t betray me in my voice.
“You will go downstairs for this party. You will behave yourself.” Every sentence is like the swinging of a sword. Slice. Slice. “I will introduce you to Jimmy’s son and you will entertain him for the evening.” Slice. I’m about to protest when he goes off into his signature guilt-tripping monologue. “Who do you think I throw these parties for? Why do you think I spend all this money? For me?” Yes, because you do, you braggart. “These are for you. All of my work is for you.”
“What work? You inherited power. We’re janitors. The last Piccolo to do any real work was—” And really, I don’t even know. The reign of Piccolos in the Northeast stretches back farther than I care to trace. “One of the men in those musty oil paintings in the hallways.”
“You are gonna send me to an early grave, Luciana. And you know what? That would be fine if I didn’t think you were less prepared than the goddamn dishwasher to run this region.” His anger has dissipated into a more manageable exasperation. While he may be a ruthless tyrant as a day job, it doesn’t take much for me to cut him down to size. No daughter leaves her father’s weakness unexploited; it’s more my birthright than the region. He points a short, fat finger at me. “What would your mother say?”
Lancing me with the memory of my mother is low, even for him. “She wouldn’t want to attend this, either. She hated your balls.”
“Katherine might’ve hated them, but she would never tolerate this behavior and you know it.” As much as my mother preferred books to balls, she did always attend social functions with a smile on her face and encouraged me to do the same. So, he’s right, but I’m not going to tell him that. “If you can’t be relied upon to attend a ball, how the hell am I supposed to entrust you with the region?”
“Looks like neither of us has a choice in that, do we?”
Papa sighs, evidently weary and exhausted with me. “I am only asking you to attend a goddamn ball, Luciana. I want to see you downstairs in less than ten minutes.”
My hand goes up in salute as I stand. “Yes, sir, Leader Piccolo, sir.”
His expression softens only a tad as he looks me up and down. Papa gets that look in his eyes every so often when he sees my mother in me. She did it better, of course. She did everything better. But our resemblance is a more powerful weapon than her memory. “That is a nice dress. You look lovely, principessa.”
“Thank you, Papa.” I pluck his mask from the breast pocket of his coat, securing it around his head. “I’ll see you in a few minutes. Promise.” Planting a quick kiss on his cheek, I turn his wide frame around and usher him out the door.
I wrangle myself into impossibly high heels, bringing my tallness to new heights. During events in which I know I’ll be thrust toward some rich man’s salivating son, it’s an inner delight to truly tower over them. Giving my dress a once-over, I run my fingers along the real emeralds stitched into the matching emerald-colored fabric, shimmering with every subtle movement of my body. My mask matches in aesthetic, made from finely crafted mahogany. Shooting up from the left side is a bright bouquet of exotic feathers in orange, red, and yellow. I am a tree in the midst of autumn—beautiful, but in the throes of death.
The servants lingering outside my door erupt in a chorus of hushed “oohs” and “aahs.” I want to roll my eyes at the dramatics, but good breeding forces a polite smile at their profuse adoration. It isn’t their fault. Papa pays them to make me feel good about myself. There is always someone on payroll to tell me how beautiful, how smart, how funny I am. With that inflated sense of self-worth it’s a wonder I fit through any doorways at all.
But I do, and I find myself making the familiar trip toward the busy kitchen. Using my foot to prop open the door, the gust of room temperature air hits the sweating chefs and distracts Jean enough to glance over at the source of prolonged relief. Jean resembles a twentieth-century movie villain, complete with nefarious eyebrows, skinny physique, and a sloping nose he looks down to talk to anyone. He’s a twirling mustache and top hat away from tying a damsel to a railroad track, but a kind heart beats beneath his standoffish French exterior.
“Your dress is magnificent,” he says with an unnecessary half bow toward me. “Like a beautiful libellule.”
“Merci, Monsieur.” A server hoisting a silver platter whizzes past us. “How much could I pay you to hide me in here?”
“Like when you were a little girl, yes? Hiding from tutors and your parents.” He grins, wiping his hands on the front of his apron. “Can barely see you underneath this mask. Your mother gave you that pretty face and that pretty hair and yet, you hide.”
“That’s the point of a masquerade, is it not? Disguise yourself? Be someone else for a night?”
One of the servers greets me by name as she passes. I’d respond in kind if I had any idea who she is, so I smile politely and nod. Papa has close to fifty people employed at the mansion full time, and for these events the number is at least doubled. Knowing their names would be a full-time job unto itself. “You don’t want to be you? These people here would kill to be you.”
I’m about to heartily disagree when Jean gasps as if he’s been shot. “Oh, no, no, no! The dough should be golden brown on the ends! Do not serve this merde to the guests.” It looks fine to me, but if Jean’s reaction is anything to go by, these pastries are as inedible as bootstraps. “I am so sorry, Luciana. I will see you tomorrow because I have to watch over every miette leaving the kitchen. Otherwise.” He slides his finger across his throat. Jean can rest easy. Considering Papa’s gluttonous gift for excess, the last person he would fire would be the chef.
Temporarily anonymous by virtue of my mask, I stalk around my ballroom unnoticed. The last thing I want to do is draw attention, lest Papa catch wind I’m downstairs and force me to meet good ol’ Jimmy’s son. I’d rather eat my own hair. I’d even eat someone else’s hair.
I mill about, picking up bits and pieces of conversations: snippets of gossip or unsolicited advice, drunken rants, and salacious whispers. Most of it is drivel or rumors below my level of interest, until I’m near the edge of the ballroom by the garden windows. In the daytime these windows showcase exotic flowers Papa has imported, but at night it looks like an ominous jungle with dangers lurking inside. The ballroom has never been my favorite place in our mansion. It’s cavernous and gaudy, like a bygone relic from the reign of a Russian czar. Gold trim, immense oil paintings, heavy draperies, skylights, and Doric columns just shy of flagrantly phallic.
“Did you hear about Silas?” A hook-nosed man and his short companion stand near a pillar, heads bowed together in close conversation. Casually I glide to the other side of the pillar, my back to them, watching over my shoulder.
“Oh, certainly,” his companion replies.
“Murdered in his sleep. Slit throat.” The hook-nosed man gossiping uses his index finger to swipe across his neck like Jean did, but this time it’s not an exaggeration. “All the kids found dead, too, and his pretty young wife.”
“Heavens! The Order, I presume?”
“The same. They are so brazen nowadays. I heard rumors they took out top brass in other regions, you know,” he says in a gossipy whisper. “Silas lost nearly every one of the high-ranking men in his military before his murder. Leader Reed’s top two consultants, missing. Leader Thorne’s top Duster? Dead.” They share a look of vague concern.
“What do they want?” the ugly man inquires of his companion. “Democracy? Democracy was a theory, like Communism. Was this not proven in the Rift? You cannot sustain a country on ideals. Uneducated fools, the lot of them. They’ll doom us all.”
Perhaps I should comment about how gravity is also a theory, but no one is floating around the room. I don’t.
Our ballroom is awash in rumors and scandal; it’s as prevalent in the air as music. On their lips is the fate of Silas McGovern—or their worries and bets on who the next target will be. Others blissfully engage in more benign conversation about inter-region trade or extramarital affairs. The only truly useful information I gather is from those who doubt Papa’s ability to combat a rebel force. I make a mental note of them; Papa will want to know about it later.
“Savages.” An old woman sips from her martini glass, held in diamond-encrusted fingers. “Killing innocent children? The Order of Prometheus is no harbinger of peace. They’re…violent radicals.”
Terrorists is the word she’s looking for, but she’d only find it if she raided my mother’s illicit library, where the word pops up often to describe the events leading to the Rift and the eventual collapse of the former nation. Like her books, that word is shuttered away and gone from usage. Nobody wants easy access to the blueprints of rebellion.
“Silas deserved it.” This comes from a statuesque woman in a twilight purple gown who says this with finality, smacking her twilight purple lips together. “Those idiot religious zealots in the Southeast? They deserve barbarism.”
A stately older gentleman with epaulets on his shoulders clears his throat. Attention turns to him quickly—he’s the highest-ranking member of the Force, Chief Jones. His mere presence inspires adulation and fear amongst this flock of cravens. Not from me, since no matter how many meaningless yellow patches they sew into his uniform I will always outrank him. “The rebels will never take this region,” he says, bursting with confidence. “McGovern was old and weak. Leader Piccolo and I would never allow a rebel presence to build here.”
Chief Jones’s arrogant confidence is not surprising. Even if he inwardly worried about the pockets of rebellion, he’d never say it publicly. Papa bought his loyalty long ago, shored up by a friendship bonded by a fondness for power. The clearest memory I have of him is my mother scolding my father when he left a preadolescent me alone with the chief after a dinner meeting. We were never left alone together again.
“What do you think, young lady?” His voice gives me a start, and I assume his booming tone is directed at me. It isn’t.
He’s asking the woman standing in front of the beverage table, who looks up through a simple, light blue, figure-eight mask. A rogue strand of blond hair escapes her graceful bun and she swipes it away from her eyes. In contrast to the ball gowns of the other women in attendance, she wears a tailored black suit and blue tie. It’s not uncommon to see a woman in a suit, especially among Papa’s female employees or subregion leaders, but it would be uncommon for one of them to be so young. Perhaps she’s the daughter of someone important.
“What do I think about what?” A pair of amber eyes—inert but intense, like uncorked champagne—stare up with disinterest. Her voice is low and scratchy not because of age, but a natural huskiness, drawling like an old record.
“About the rebels, of course,” he replies. “You’re a young person…what is the feeling among those your age about the sudden rise of rebellion?”
“What rebellion? If there were a threat, I am sure half your top men would not be here getting inebriated.”
My mask hides my shock but not my snort of laughter. If I were a good hostess, I would intervene and politely tell her how rude it is to insult such a high-ranking official. However, I’m not a good hostess and high-ranking officials are usually twats and this one is especially twatty. He peers down his nose at her. “It’s my duty to protect this city. I take that very seriously, young lady.”
She cocks an eyebrow, primed to respond. I eagerly anticipate her next verbal takedown, but she schools her features neutrally and doesn’t give me the satisfaction. “Sure.”
He continues pontificating despite the woman’s complete indifference. “You look young, and it’s usually the young who have their hackles up for rebellion. You are the ones who don’t understand that the systems we have in place protect everyone. These rebels, whatever they call themselves, they throw around the word freedom, but their concept of it is twisted,” he storms. “It is not a free-for-all, with the will of an uneducated public directing the fate of the rest. Freedom is safety. Freedom is protection.”
“I don’t believe I asked nor need for you to explain freedom to me.” Another woman in the group lets out a dramatically sharp gasp at the suited woman’s reply. “Nor do I think the man with his boot on the neck of the Underclass in this city knows much about the concept.”
Chief Jones bristles in a flush of anger at the affront. He looks about ready to punch this young woman in her face. “What insolence! Who are you?”
She takes a step closer to him, invading his personal space. Her eyes drag from his gold star badge up to his cold, steel eyes. “‘I’m Nobody, who are you?’”
This moronic slab of rock masquerading as a man couldn’t differentiate an Emily Dickinson quote from a hole in his head, but I can. There’s no time for me to wonder how she came upon a banned poet from the nineteenth century as Chief Jones is supremely pissed off and armed. Years of etiquette classes put me into action quickly, snatching a drink from the punch bowl and sidling up to the incensed man. “Chief Jones.”
“Little Lucy! I apologize if I’ve caused any disturbance.” We share a sidelong glance at the woman who actually caused the disturbance. “My, my, don’t you look ravishing?” And there’s his hand on the small of my back. Heroically, I suppress the shiver lurking in my spine as his hand drifts lower.
“Hello, Miss Piccolo,” the woman says, pointedly ignoring Chief Jones.
Ignoring the dumb skip of my heart, I return my attention to the chief. “A fierce discussion is good for the heart, did you know that? Keeps a young man like you even younger.” He preens, summarily distracted from the woman who caused his ire. She remains close, eyes burning into Chief Jones like she’s trying to set him ablaze with her gaze.
Papa’s voice sails over the orchestra and I find his stout figure waving at me from across the ballroom. The blond woman has disappeared from the punch table, much to my disappointment. She must be Upperclass—Papa would only invite wealthy patrons—but she’s somehow not an intolerable snob. And we seem to share the hobby of antagonizing powerful men. Upperclass people with sympathies for the Underclass and no tongue on the boot of the Force are extremely uncommon. But tonight I may have found one, my white whale, and now she’s gone. Call me Ishmael.
“So sorry, Chief. Perhaps we can have a dance later?” I ask, looping his arm with mine and steering him toward Sergeant Miles, another rich policeman on the Force. Once the two men greet each other, I extricate myself from the chief and ready my harpoon.
I’m called to port before I can continue my hunt.
“Luciana, avvicinati.” Papa smiles, much too kindly, and I already know I’m going to hate whatever is about to happen. I approach with wary steps from one storm into another. “This is Jimmy Junior. JJ, this is my beautiful daughter, Luciana.”
Jimmy Junior’s suit doesn’t quite fit his robust frame. Rumpled white socks are visible below where his pant leg strains valiantly to reach his shoes. His brown locks are slicked up like freshly cut winter grass. A crusty bit adorns the side of his lip, making him practically the most irresistible man in the room. This man-child extends his hand toward me, and I take it because Papa is watching. Much to my disdain, he places a warm, mushy kiss on my knuckles. “A pleasure to meet you, Luciana. Leader Piccolo has been telling us of your beauty all night. I understand why he keeps you under lock and key.”
“Oh, good. Nothing a woman loves more than being coveted like an object.” I glare at my father and silently vow to hide the painkillers in the morning from that tipsy turncoat.
“I’ll let you two get to know each other.” My traitorous father bows out of the conversation. Another portly man joins him into an adjoining side room, which is promptly guarded by a CO failing badly at not looking like a hired gun despite being in a tuxedo. Clandestine Officers are not officially Force, our regional police, but rather mercenaries who are only a step above street thugs due to their organization. They’re meant to blend in and provide “clandestine” protection without looking gauche, but their stupid cropped haircuts and rigid demeanor give them away to anyone with half a brain. Which, in fairness, eliminates a lot of my father’s guests tonight.
“So, your father tells me you’re yearning to take over.” JJ takes a long, loud sip of champagne. “I like a lady with ambition, Luce.”
“Luciana,” I reply sharply. “And yearning is a strong word.” A champagne flute is offered to me and I down it in one fell swoop. I’m going to need more than this to get through the night, so I snag another before the server departs.
JJ giggles and runs his fingers through his oiled hair. “Well, what do you like to do? Personally, I’m into more leisurely activities.”
Oh, knock me over with a feather. “You don’t say?”
“Most definitely,” he says, gesturing at the servants. “Leave the hard work to the grunts, right? Myself, I keep my hard work in the bedroom.” How is this man not taken? Charm oozes from him.
“How charming.” It’s meant to be sarcastic, but he smiles and remains blissfully unaware of my intent. He’s handsy as he talks at me about his father’s lucrative fishing business. This is not the first suitor to overstep his boundaries with me and likely won’t be the last. Still, my etiquette classes are coming in handy once again tonight, and I don’t recall “punching a grabby idiot” being on the list of appropriate behavior.
“Do you dance?”
“Oh, no, not really.” A blatant lie. Earlier tonight I danced in the arms of Papa’s personal copter pilot, Derek. He’s handsome and funny, as well as an excellent dancer. Of course, Derek is Underclass and Papa would have him fired if he knew I let him take me dancing. And Papa would kill him if he knew the other ways I let him take me.
“Very well. Then what do you say we take this upstairs for a glass of scotch and quieter conversation?” The glint in his squinty eyes is clear—his daddy promised me as his prize for the night. A self-inflicted decapitation with a rusty butter knife sounds more appealing.
As I deliberate how best to maim myself with a champagne flute, a throaty voice tingles in my ear from behind. “Hello again.”
When I turn, I’m staring at the top of the head of the mysterious blonde from earlier. Running my tongue across my lips, I cock an eyebrow and peer down at her. “Hello yourself.”
With a formal bend at the waist, she takes my hand in hers. “I’m sorry to bother you, Miss Piccolo, but I’d love to have this dance.” Deceptively kind eyes harden as she sizes up Jimmy Junior. “You don’t mind, do you?” It doesn’t matter if he minds, because she forcibly detaches his grip on my other arm, shoving my champagne flute into his meaty hand. “May I?”
I’ve barely finished nodding when she whisks me away to the dance floor. After we’re out of range of the lovely Jimmy Junior, I heave a sigh of relief. “You’re my hero.”
We join others on the dance floor and fall into place among those whirling around to the small orchestra’s arrangement. Our heels hit the waxed hardwood in perfect time to the music, weaving through the ballroom with ease. I enjoy a good waltz as much as the next heiress, but it’s poor form to dance with a stranger. Though, I have to admit, the impertinence of dancing with the region leader’s daughter without introducing herself feels apropos for the same woman who worked Chief Jones into a rage.
“So,” I begin, “does my savior have a name?”
“Taylor.” Traditionally, it is customary to announce your first and last name, as well as your vocation, to someone of my stature. Her disregard for this pageantry is a little thrilling. Something about her makes me uneasy in the same way heights do, like staring off the edge of the Piccolo Building from the top deck.
“Taylor what?” Her eyes narrow behind her mask, as if I’m the suspicious one for interrogating a guest at my own ball. “Everyone deals in last names, Taylor, it’s better than money.” If it turns out she’s some lowly factory foreman’s daughter trying to get in with Papa, I’ll be in trouble. Papa hates social climbers and I’ve been instructed to detect them, mask or not.
“I do not care about money.” Her voice is quiet but pierces through the din of dancers and orchestral music, straight inside me. “It is only a dance, Miss Piccolo.”
“I prefer Lucy.” This puts a brief but enchanting smile onto her face, quickly forgotten as we spin in our structured waltz. “So, you don’t care for money and you engage in inflammatory conversations with powerful men. I’m not so sure we should be seen together.”
“Would you prefer I return you to Mr. James Danzino, Junior?”
The mere insinuation I’d like to spend time with that gargantuan ass is highly offensive. “If JJ is the other choice, I’d prefer you threw me off the roof.”
“Understandable. He attempted to make my acquaintance earlier this evening. I was not as kind as you in my rebuff.”
Well, this woman isn’t interested in making friends, is she? I like her already. “I suppose I am lucky to have come upon you, then.”
She shakes her head. “There is no such thing as luck. Only opportunities taken or missed.”
The effortless authority with which Taylor takes the lead is pleasant, though surprising for a woman. In spite of both of us wearing heels, we’re dancing literal and figurative circles around the other men and women here. She never looks down at our feet, only into my eyes or at the crowd of people around us. “You know, my instructors would never teach me the ‘male’ part. Evidently, it’s improper for a lady to lead a dance, even if she’s to lead a region. Your tutors didn’t mind?”
How verbose. “Maybe you could show me how to lead sometime.”
“Perhaps.” Normally this kind of pithy conversation would bother me, but I’m more intrigued than annoyed. Dancing with me is exceptionally brazen, the kind of behavior one might expect from the spawn of a business owner, but she hasn’t tried to sell me anything or even mentioned my powerful father. “You know, I saw you stalking around earlier.”
“Oh, yeah? How long have you been watching me?”
“Long enough to observe your trying not to get noticed.”
“It’s not often I can walk into any room unnoticed. I enjoyed the anonymity.” Her head inclines to indicate perhaps she thinks this is reasonable, but I can’t shake the feeling she knows I’m withholding. “I like to watch people.”
“Here I was thinking we would have nothing in common,” she muses. “What did you observe?”
“Typical gossip. Who’s sleeping with who, who made some deal they think is brilliant. Chief Jones is in the foyer licking his wounds because a crazy woman almost egged him into performing an execution in my ballroom.” Her eyes roll—a tad bashful, a tad defiant. “Lots of people talking about Silas McGovern.”
“Not surprising,” she says mildly. “Leader McGovern’s assassination is shocking news.”
“The murder of his entire family is more shocking. Assassinating a leader at least has precedent in the early days after the Rift. Killing his children is horrendous. The eldest wasn’t even ten years old.”
Taylor remains neutral. “I suppose the perpetrators felt it a fair trade for their freedom. It is not a forgiving place for most.”
Via an illegal backchannel, I’ve seen the photographs of men and women lynched from sturdy oaks, murdered for committing “crimes against nature.” It strikes a dissonant chord deep within me. “Evil doesn’t excuse evil.”
“What would you propose?” Momentarily stumped, I shrug. It’s not often anyone actually gives a shit what I think. “You are the next region leader, Miss Piccolo. You surely have some idea of how to negotiate, even with traitorous rebels.”
“Negotiation isn’t exactly strong in the Piccolo genes,” I reply. “What would you do?”
“I don’t matter.” She dances us out of the way of two guests drunkenly clawing each other with ravenous intent. We exchange a chuckle and continue our dance on the fringes of the floor. “You are the heir. It is what you think, what you do, that matters.”
“I…I don’t know.” Based upon the little scoff she emits under her breath, Taylor doesn’t find this believable. My involvement in running the region has steadily increased, especially as efforts to distract me with a suitor have been unsuccessful. I want to do my duty, but the amount of power involved scares me to death. And part of me isn’t afraid of the power. I don’t like that part of me. “I suppose I would try to understand what the rebels want and reach a compromise without the bloodletting.”
Taylor smiles, her practiced feet coming to a slow stop. “And you said you didn’t know how to lead. You ably defused the situation between myself and Chief Jones.”
“That’s nothing. Being a good hostess is what proper ladies do,” I say with only a slight edge of sarcasm. “Not leaders.”
“Maybe you are both. Though, admittedly, I am not well versed in what proper ladies do.”
“No? You dance like one.”
“I am glad my form is acceptable, though I do not enjoy dancing.” Off my look, she elaborates, “Just because I can, does not mean I like to.”
This woman is a host of contradictions; she possesses Underclass sympathies, but she dances like someone well bred. She claims to not like dancing, but by how closely she’s holding me, I’d say she’s not hating it. “So, why are you dancing with me? Because I stopped Chief Jones from arresting you?”
“Oh, please, I don’t believe for one second you’re only dancing with me to repay favors. I’ll find out who you really are, Taylor. And what you really want,” I say with a wink. “I can be very persuasive.”
Unperturbed by my flirting, she replies, “Is that because you are a leader, or a proper lady?”
“Don’t you remember? I’m both. Pay attention.”
If only Papa would emerge so I could see the puffed-up, reddened look on his face as he finds me in the arms of this strange, unfairly attractive woman. And she certainly is attractive. Minimal makeup means her beauty is effortless, with striking facial features and two stunning eyes, the color a light brown closer to the yellow of a jungle cat than any familiar shade of wood. A lithe, strong body is packed into her suit. Her muscles soften and tense beneath my hands.
“Your suitor is practically green with envy,” she says, nodding toward Jimmy Junior, who’s being orbited like a neutron star by other young, angry men watching us.
“Is that why he’s green?”
“That or the twelve hundred appetizers he consumed since arriving,” she replies.
Chuckling, I tilt my head. “Keeping tabs on the guests? Isn’t that the host’s job?”
“Since Leader Piccolo has yet to notice a stranger took his daughter, I do not think he is too concerned with the gastrointestinal activities of your intended.”
“He is not my intended,” I object with a sharp look. “Besides—” I wet my lips and drop my voice. “It doesn’t count as being taken if I come willingly.”
A full blush creeps below her mask and she shakes her head, adjusting her grip as the music changes. We seamlessly segue into a Viennese waltz, joined by others who nod deferentially in my direction, no doubt murmuring amongst themselves about the woman with whom I’ve chosen to dance. This gossip is heightened by the stark intimacy of this waltz—we are close enough where I can breathe in her breath, see the faint dots of perspiration along her forehead, and the heat of our bodies could melt the gems right off my dress. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, she often deflects and continuously scans the room.
Eventually, the lack of her undivided attention irks me. “You know, it doesn’t make a girl feel special when her dancing partner has their eyes glued on everyone in the room but her.”
“I was not aware it was my duty to make you feel special.” Her gaze settles on me, an unsettling stare. I wonder if her eyes always contain this coiled energy, like a scorpion poised to strike. “Are there not staff Leader Piccolo pays to do that?”
People love to squish me into boxes: spoiled daughter, socialite, or airhead heir. It appears Taylor has at least put me in the first one. “Is he paying you, hero?”
Reeling me in against her chest, I receive a plume of her scent when we touch—cool, like fresh snow. “No.”
“Good.” My heart thuds so loudly my chest, I hope she can’t hear it. “Because I’d tell him to demand his money back.”
She chuckles, breaking the tension. “Are you not enjoying yourself, Miss Piccolo?”
“I didn’t say that. But I’m sure he would be incensed to know some rebel-sympathizing rabble-rouser accosted his only spawn.”
“As if that was not the precise reason you agreed to dance with me.” She’s not wrong, though getting me away from JJ made my decision easy. “Maybe you have some rebel in you.”
Blushing, I roll my eyes. “Everyone is brave behind a mask.”
Taylor appraises me, candlelight eyes twinkling. She tilts her head to catch my eye, hand touching the side of my mask. “Not everyone. Bravery is a choice.”
“Dancing isn’t brave.”
“It can be.”
Suddenly, I wish we weren’t wearing these masks. I want to get to know this woman without this façade of distance. I don’t care whose daughter she is. I am pulled to her like a compass rose toward true north. And that’s not to mention the physical attraction, of which there is plenty. The scandalous rapidity with which I would take her to bed is truly astonishing, even for me.
I’m mentally calculating how best to woo this woman into my bedroom when I see her eyes fixate upward and her body tenses beneath my hands. Following her gaze, I’m perplexed to see the skylights nearly black—as if a thick layer of soot has overtaken them. My dancing partner’s eyes fall back down with mine, but she isn’t confused. Her eyes are wide in observation, like she’s trying to swallow the room with one look. COs surreptitiously move closer to us, fingers pressed to their hidden earpieces, trying not to bump into any of the dancers. Instinctively I look around for Papa, assuming he called them to attention. Normally his absence is a blessing, but now I’m craving the sense of security that accompanies his power. The hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
“Lucy?” I nod dumbly as the hand around my back rises and grips my shoulder. “Get ready.”
“For what?” Her hand on my shoulder disappears into her blazer, withdrawing a pistol. Before any of the COs can reach us, her arm wraps tightly around my waist and her leg shimmies in between mine. Pointing the gun at the sky, she pulls the trigger and a projectile attached to a long rope shatters the skylights and sends a shower of glass raining down on the dance floor, peppering the screaming women and men, including us.
Well, not us. I’m screaming. Taylor is silent.
Giving the rope an experimental tug, her eyes traverse the length with stern focus. As the COs reach us, we rocket into the air. The hold I have on her tightens as we sail through the open, broken pane of glass, somehow managing to avoid gouging precious limbs on the remaining shards affixed to the structure. The propulsion pushes us several feet above the skylights, and for a few seconds we float.
Taylor is solid as we land, and keeps her grip tight, holding me steady. The grapple gun gets tucked away and exchanged for another pistol. I doubt this one has a rope. Her stance shifts, and she positions herself between the COs and me. Before they can reach or ready their weapons, she kills four guards with four eardrum-shattering gunshots. One CO falls through the glass and makes a sickening thud, which triggers an additional round of screaming from the ballroom. The other three collapse on the ground like marionettes whose puppeteers have snipped their strings. There’s no convulsing, no agonizing death. She has hit them straight in the head. It’s almost merciful, like an execution. It is an execution.
Three of our mansion’s own guards, a ragtag platoon of unarmed former police, burst from the roof access. Taylor backs into me, holsters her gun, then places her hand on my hip to coax me a few steps back. “Don’t move.”
“Really? Thought maybe I’d cannonball through the skylights.” It’s not like I can move anyway, immobile as I am in fear.
The other guards are unarmed—retrospectively a huge oversight on Papa’s part. They descend upon her like vultures to a carcass, viciously punching and kicking her with such relentless brutality it sounds like tenderizing a steak. One of Taylor’s kicks sends an assailant over the edge of the skylight, back inside. I cover my ears. I’d rather not have two bodily thuds on playback in the stereo of my mind.
A guard snatches her in a chokehold and wrenches her from the others. His knife glints in the light of the moon and my stomach tumbles. The steel blade nicks the side of her face before she’s able to get away. One of the others knocks her to her knees with a savage punch to the face. Another guard kicks her in the stomach a few times, forcing her to curl into a ball.
I take a half step forward in an insane, suicidal, counterintuitive instinct to help her. Taylor catches one of their feet in her hands before it strikes her again. She twists the ankle with a bone-chilling crack, causing the guard to scream and crumble to the ground. Taylor hastily gets to her feet, engaging one of the two guards left in impressive martial arts. It is fluid and violent, precise and bloody. I’m impressed, and I hate myself for it.
The last guard grips her coat from behind, and Taylor rolls her eyes and lets him come away with her suit jacket, revealing her torn button-down shirt and set of light blue suspenders. He swipes at her another couple times with his knife, but she bends her body in such deceiving ways he doesn’t come close to her.
“I’ll kill you, you bitch,” he says with an ugly snarl.
You know what? I’m starting to doubt it.
He swipes at her again and she calmly disarms him. With her left hand on his face, she places the knife still at his throat and forcefully spins his body around to slice him across the jugular. Blood spews on her face and shirt as he collapses on the ground, holding his neck. I throw up off to the side at the sound of the man’s dying gurgles.
“Jesus Christ, what is wrong with you? These are real people you killed.”
Taylor wipes blood from her face with her sleeve. “As opposed to fake people?”
Before I can even fathom if she’s serious, the familiar, loud chop of a helicopter fills my ears and the wind picks up at my feet. I look up toward the sky. Rescue! Frantically, I wave to the copter with both arms.
“You’re going to pay for this,” I tell Taylor with a confidence in my voice the rest of my body does not possess.
The sleek navy-blue helicopter makes its landing and Taylor shoves me toward it. Two pieces of information become rapidly apparent: this copter is not Force despite the telltale color and decal, and I am an idiot. Taylor’s gun is leveled at my face when I turn to protest. Mask off, blond hair swirls around a deceptively gorgeous, unfriendly face.
“Get in.” Her voice loses its playful tone, her charming smile gone flat into firm grimace.
However, I am no easily taken bait. I lunge toward the gun with such laughable disgrace I’m disheartened even before she knocks away my hands, sweeps my feet, and forces me to land on my butt with a painful flop. Her foot comes down and digs into my sternum, pushing me against the cold concrete of the roof. “Never lunge toward a gun, Miss Piccolo.”
“Thanks for the tip.” Her boot remains pressed against my sternum. “Do you mind? Can’t exactly kidnap me if I’m pinned to the ground.”
She removes her foot, gun aimed at my head. “Get up, princess.”
“Don’t call me that.” I dig my palms into the loose concrete and push myself up. Taylor takes me by the shoulder and spins me around, pressing the gun into my spine.
A hulking man hops off the copter and offers me his hand to step in. Pointedly ignoring him, I climb in without assistance. As soon as the three of us are strapped in, the helicopter ascends into the blackness. My captor and I are provided ear protection, and Taylor removes her heels and flings them out of the open helicopter door before slamming it shut. The man gives her a pair of work boots and a watch that looks like a handcuff. She’s also provided a jacket, which I could use, but I doubt anyone cares.
The city disappears below us and I orient myself via the constellations out the window. It takes me a while to make out the North Star, but I find it and determine we are going west. West over New Jersey, over Papa’s hazy gray factories pockmarking the otherwise lush greenery of the state. Farther west over the Delaware River, over the smoking cities of Pennsylvania and toward dark forests.
I don’t know where they are taking me, but I think I know who they are. Copters are expensive. This one is stolen, but they have enough money to finance its upkeep. This was a highly organized effort, both in my extraction and however the hell this maniac snuck into the party. Also, this maniac has rebel sympathies and is a complete murder machine.
So. Stolen aircraft. Organized effort. Rebel sympathies. Expert killing.
I am with the Order of Prometheus, and they are going to kill me.